Anne Sammon tells HRNews why flu will present unprecedented challenges for employers this winter

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    Employers should revise sickness policies ahead of winter flu. Why? Because the signs are that flu will be a bigger problem this winter than Covid-19 meaning employees will expect similar measures to those introduced for Covid, such as working from home and isolation requirements for staff who are sick.   

    The scientific evidence is pointing this. Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the vaccination body the JCVI, has been telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme how the sharp decline in flu cases during the winter lockdown has lessened immunity levels. This is what he told presenter Nick Robinson:

    BBC report

    The GPs’ publication Pulse reported in February that there had been no flu cases detected in England in the first 7 weeks of 2021 with infection rates at historic lows. It appears the social restrictions brought in to curb transmission of Covid, combined with increased uptake of the flu vaccine, have had the effect of driving down infection rates. The JCVI is currently working on advice to the government over the next steps of the Covid vaccination programme, including the potential need for ‘booster’ shots this autumn and winter, and is researching whether any booster campaign could be combined with the annual flu vaccination programme.

    How this impact on employers is the issue explored by Anne Sammon in  her Outlaw article: ‘Revise sickness policies ahead of UK winter flu’. She says: ‘We now have the precedent, from Covid-19, of employees being asked to self-isolate to prevent the further spread of illness. Employees may expect that similar steps will be taken to address all infectious disease outbreaks and so employers should be considering what their approach will be to this issue and starting to manage expectations around this.’ Her point is that if this isn’t managed properly staff will feel unfairly treated, they’ll complain, and that will give rise to further problems which will need to be managed. So let’s hear more about that. Anne joined me by video-link to discuss it. I started by asking about the employees’ options in that event:

    Anne Sammon: “So, I suppose there are a whole potential host of different options that employees might use in this particular circumstance. One is a grievance and that might be a grievance because they are a disabled employee and they are feeling that they are more vulnerable to whatever particular infectious diseases there are at the workplace at the relevant time, or it might be a grievance about health and safety concerns, or it might be, actually, I don't think you've got the right controls in place to prevent the spread of flu COVID, whatever it is, and therefore I don't think this is a safe working environment for me and I'm bringing a grievance on that basis. There's also that the right under the Employment Rights Act where an employee genuinely believes that their health and safety is at risk of imminent risk that they can refuse to be in the workplace or remain in the workplace. So, there's a possibility that employees might just walk out if they think there's a risk of them becoming unwell due to an infectious disease.”

    Joe Glavina: “You say in your article that employers should craft policies carefully to encourage those who may be infectious to remain at home whilst, at the same time, not discouraging those who are too sick to work from taking time off as sick leave. Tricky.”

    Anne Sammon: “Yes, it’s a tricky balance. There's one that we've already seen with COVID cases, because what employers have had to do is say, well, if you if you think you might have COVID, if somebody in your household might have COVID, if you think you've got mild symptoms but you can still work, please don't come to the workplace, please just work from home, but for those of you that genuinely are unwell with this, please can you just not work at all, please, use sick pay and sick leave and access it in that way. So, it's a continuation of what we've already seen. I do think because employees are a lot more aware of these issues we're likely to see more grievances, more discussion, and more disgruntled employees where someone comes in saying that they're not feeling well, and the implications that that might have for the rest of the workforce.”

    Joe Glavina: “Finally, on flu vaccinations, we know some employers offer free flu jabs for staff, which is fine for those who can make it to the office, but it leaves homeworkers at a disadvantage, potentially. So, presumably there’s a discrimination risk there, Anne?”

    Anne Sammon: “There is definitely an indirect discrimination risk and that can occur on lots of different grounds. So, if for example you were offering in-person vaccinations for anyone who's physically in the office, you might have claims from those people who are working from home and those claims might depend on the reasons for them working from home. If you offer the vaccination only to certain groups of employees, rather than to everybody, then you're at risk of discrimination claims there. So, this all needs to be thought through very carefully and planned, but the advantages of offering people those flu vaccinations is that, hopefully, your workforce will be able to continue to work uninterrupted through the winter season and therefore there'll be less disruption to your business.”

    Anne article is called: ‘Revise sickness policies ahead of UK winter flu’ and is available now from the Outlaw website which is where you’ll find news of all the latest developments. We have also put a link to the BBC’s Today programme if you would like to listen to Professor Harden’s interview in full.

    - Link to Outlaw article by Anne Sammon
    - Link to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme

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