What Does Living with Covid Look Like for Businesses?
All of England’s remaining Covid restrictions were dropped in February, with the government introducing its Living with Covid plan.
As part of this, adults and children with coronavirus are advised to isolate, although this is not a legal requirement, and businesses no longer have to tell staff to self-isolate if they test positive.
Furthermore, access to free lateral flow testing has been scrapped for most people, with a few exceptions such as some NHS and social care workers.
So what does living with Covid look like, and is the current strategy working for businesses?
Well, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that coronavirus infection levels recently reached an all-time high in England in the week to March 26th, with an estimated one in thirteen people having Covid.
And that’s having a huge impact on businesses and their ability to operate smoothly.
Covid guidance is ‘far too vague’
Of course, natural immunity and a high take-up of the vaccines means the link between infection and serious illness or death has been weakened considerably over the last year. But many business leaders are still struggling to manage Covid-related absences and some are arguing this is partly because the current government advice isn’t clear enough.
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), for example, says some firms are seeing absence rates of up to 20 per cent and that the guidance on protecting vulnerable staff and customers, including pregnant women, is “far too vague”.
Hannah Essex, Co-Executive Director of the BCC, said: “For many firms, living with Covid really means living with disruption. One positive Covid case in a workplace has the potential to be hugely disruptive if it causes several other colleagues to become ill and need time off work.
“Firms are also concerned about how to protect their vulnerable members of staff when the removal of free testing means either not being able to identify Covid cases or incurring additional costs for tests that they can ill afford in the current climate.”
Ms Essex stressed that business leaders are keen to get back to pre-pandemic trading conditions and return to full capacity on their premises. However, she said the unclear guidance has left many worried about their legal responsibilities and liabilities.
“Businesses need crystal clear guidance, especially smaller firms who don’t have their own HR departments to help them manage these sorts of issues,” Ms Essex insisted.
What do businesses want?
The BCC has urged ministers to address two key issues in order to give business leaders greater confidence.
Firstly, it believes that if the government will no longer provide free lateral flow tests, it must “at least look to secure low-cost options for hard-pressed firms”, particularly as many are currently facing rising costs across the board.
Secondly, the BCC has called on ministers to provide clarity on what they will do if further variants of concern are identified or if there is another pandemic in the future. This, it said, should include details on what support would be put in place if any guidance or restrictions are introduced that would negatively impact the economy.
Ms Essex argued that businesses would “only truly be able to live with Covid” if they are confident a plan for future outbreaks is in place.
“Otherwise, uncertainty will put a brake on investment and the shadow of the pandemic could continue to loom over our economy for months to come,” she warned.
Vaccination rates vary across different industries
More than 50 million people in the UK have had the first dose of a Covid vaccine, over 49 million have had two doses, and more than 30 million have had their booster or third dose.
But while these headline figures are undeniably impressive, a deeper dive into the data shows some interesting and worrying patterns.
Much of the conversation has centred around regional variations, but figures show vaccination rates also vary greatly across different occupation groups.
According to the ONS, health professionals are most likely to have received three vaccinations (84.7 per cent), along with teachers and other education professionals (83.6 per cent).
But conversely, people working in elementary trades and related occupations were found to be the least likely to be triple-jabbed (57.6 per cent), as were people in skilled construction and building trades (61.8 per cent).
As a result, these industries could be particularly vulnerable to Covid-related absences over the coming months, although the sheer prevalence of the virus throughout the community right now means all sectors face the very real possibility of further disruption in the near future.