With several cases of the Omicron variant identified in the UK, experts say firms need to think ahead and not wait for the Government before bringing in extra safety measures.

In what to many feels like a rerun of last winter, the Prime Minister announced on Saturday (27th November) that Coronavirus restrictions would be tightened just weeks before Christmas – albeit a much lighter touch than before.

From 30th November, the law will change in England making face masks compulsory in shops, on public transport, in hairdressers, post offices and banks, unless you are exempt.  People who break the rules face a £200 fine, but the law will not apply to pubs, restaurants or any other hospitality setting.

During a press conference on the new variant, first reported from South Africa on Wednesday (24th November), the PM said that these measures were “temporary and precautionary” and would be reassessed after three weeks.

The new mask-wearing requirements bring England in line with measures already in force in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where masks are universally required on public transport. (The rules on masks in other public spaces vary between the devolved countries.)

He also announced tighter travel restrictions, including the return of PCR testing for everyone who comes into the UK on day two after their arrival, the reintroduction of mandatory self-isolation for all Omicron contacts and a potential extension of booster jabs.

Anyone arriving from abroad will also be required to take a Day 2 PCR test, and self-isolate until they get a negative result.  Only British and Irish citizens will be allowed into the UK from the newly red-listed countries in southern Africa. They will have to show a negative test taken within three days of departure. They will then have to spend 10 days in a Government-approved quarantine hotel, at a cost of more than £2,000, after landing.

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Meanwhile, the Department for Education has advised that secondary school children in years 7 and above and university students should wear face masks in communal areas.  Under the new guidance, staff, visitors and pupils are “strongly advised” to wear a face-covering in communal areas, unless they are exempt. The measure, which takes effect on 29 November, applies to all education establishments as well as childcare settings, such as early years care.

For businesses, there is no mandate on homeworking, with a Downing Street spokesperson confirming it is “down to employers” to make their own decisions.

While the measures will have a minimal effect on businesses, experts have been calling for firms to plan ahead.  It does appear that it may be prudent to consider the guidance and perhaps consider reintroducing:

  • mask-wearing,
  • good ventilation,
  • hand sanitising stations,
  • social distancing,
  • one way systems and
  • regular testing – including requiring negative tests or vaccination status before attending a Christmas party.

It may also be helpful for managers to consider whether staff who have been abroad can temporarily work from home.

Whilst there is much uncertainty about the full impact, it is prudent that firms follow the Government guidance on working safely and watch for updates, which will inevitably follow as we learn more about Omicron.