Revise sickness policies ahead of UK winter flu

Out-Law News | 23 Jun 2021 | 1:02 pm | 2 min. read

UK employers should revise their sickness policies before an anticipated increase in seasonal flu cases this winter to ensure lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic are reflected, an employment law expert has said.

Anne Sammonof Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, was commenting after a senior adviser to the UK government warned that flu “could be potentially a bigger problem this winter than Covid”. Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that the drop in flu cases to “virtually nil” over last winter’s lockdown may have lessened immunity levels.

The JCVI is currently working on advice to the government over the next steps of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, including the potential need for ‘booster’ shots this autumn and winter. Harnden said that the JCVI was also researching whether any booster shot campaign could be combined with the annual flu vaccination campaign.

Anne Sammon said that employees may be expecting similar measures to those introduced to reduce the spread of Covid-19, such as working from home and isolation requirements for sick staff, to be adopted in the event of workplace flu outbreaks.

“We now have the precedent, from Covid-19, of employees being asked to self-isolate to prevent the further spread of illness,” she said. “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.”

“Employees who are extremely clinically vulnerable, in particular, may have additional protections in terms of the right to reasonable adjustments – and may now be more aware of these rights, and so careful consideration should be given to any requests to temporarily work from home during any outbreak of infectious disease,” she said.

Sammon Anne_26 Feb 2020

Dr Anne Sammon

Partner

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

However, Sammon warned that care should be taken around any formal updates to sickness policies, so that staff who are too sick to work did not feel under pressure to instead work at home.

“Some employers have, historically, found that employees continue to come to work even when they are unwell – and potentially infectious – but this is unlikely to be acceptable to colleagues in a post-Covid work environment,” she said.

“The practical challenge here is that employers are unlikely to want to suggest that unwell employees work from home, as if they are genuinely unwell they should be on sick leave. Employers will need to craft policies and communications that encourage those who may be infectious to remain at home, whilst not discouraging employees who are too sick to work from taking time off as sick leave,” she said.

Employers may also wish to consider offering flu vaccinations to those employees who are not entitled to receive one for free, Sammon said.

“However, where employees are working from home – or now have increased opportunity to work from home – employers will need to consider how to offer this benefit so that it does not disadvantage those working from home,” she said. “This may, for example, include offering vouchers for vaccination, rather than just providing vaccination at the office.”

“The risks of not doing so include indirect discrimination – as those who need to work from home due to childcare considerations are likely to be disadvantaged – and disability discrimination issues,” she said.