People are getting vaccinated, and restrictions are slowly easing. We are all looking forward to positive changes as a result.
While it seems likely to be at least September before workplaces reopen fully, many businesses will need to return to the office in some way while continuing to follow public health guidelines. To achieve this in a safe manner, some preparation is required.
So – what do you need to do?
- Review the most up to date version of the Work Safety Protocol
- Conduct a Risk Assessment in the area of vaccines.
- Conduct a Data Impact Assessment if necessary to establish legal basis for processing data.
- Decide what next steps are for your business.
- Ensure as a minimum that all requirements under the Work Safety Protocol are implemented in the workplace.
- Consider additional measures if the Risk Assessment indicates and if relevant to your individual workplace.
- Make vaccination information available to employees.
- Consult with staff on your plans for the workplace and on their leave plans.
- Consider those who remain at risk or for those who have voiced concerns.
- Keep reading guidance documents.
Readying the Workplace
We suggest you revisit the Work Safely Protocol and ensure your response plan and risk assessments are up to date and now include vaccinations.
Your review should help identify:
- What difference employees being vaccinated will make
- Whether employees can do their jobs without the vaccination but with additional measures in place
- Whether you will need to consider redeployment options for some roles/individuals (this would usually be in conjunction with medical advice and in agreement between employee and employer).
Keep in mind
- While you can encourage and recommend employees to get vaccinated, taking a vaccine is not compulsory and is an individual choice.
- Government guidance has not clarified if an employer is entitled to ask employees if they have been vaccinated. We will keep you informed as more details emerge.
- Current medical evidence indicates being vaccinated does not necessarily mean an employee is no longer capable of being infected or transmitting the virus.
- Even if vaccinated, current advice is to continue to adhere to all public health guidance.
Flexible work arrangements
Take this opportunity to look at any flexible measures you have put in place over the past year and whether you want to keep these in place. This could be implementing part-time Work from Home (WFH) options, online meetings where possible, flexible arrangements regarding ‘office’ hours etc, how training is delivered, less work-related travel.
We recommend that companies bear in mind that the exceptional changes introduced over the past year were in response to a global pandemic. Some of the flexible approaches which became mandatory may not suit the business in a post pandemic economy. Sustaining WFH on an ongoing basis should be backed by a policy and commitments.
Remember, you are required to review homes (as workplaces) from a Health and Safety perspective, and we can assist with this and the policies which you will need to consider.
Workplace Testing – Temperature / PCR / Antigen
The HSE are currently running a Rapid Antigen Tests Detection Project to establish reliability and help decide if they can use rapid antigen tests in Ireland (these are also sometimes called lateral flow tests). They are running pilot schemes in some schools, colleges and workplaces.
There is no government guidance or regulation about the use of PRC or Antigen testing except for those travelling into Ireland from abroad.
If you are considering implementing testing of any sort, even if you are not storing the information about the test result, you will need to prove that the testing was necessary to comply with a legal obligation or prove that the data processing was necessary.
You will need to undertake a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) and consider issues like express consent, the necessity for the testing and proportionality and this DPIA should be revisited regularly to ensure continuing need. We can assist with this.
Employees Refusing to Return to Work
It is possible that, regardless of when you decide to reopen your workplace, employees may not wish to return until they have been vaccinated. An employer cannot ask their employee if they have received the vaccine nor refuse to allow an employee to return to work should they choose not to take the vaccine.
At the same time employees cannot refuse to return to work until they receive the vaccine without justifiable circumstances. In most cases waiting until vaccinated is not a justifiable circumstance.
The best way to establish the situation you will be dealing with in your workplace is to talk to your staff and listen to their concerns. Understanding their reasons and why they are refusing to return to work will help identify any additional measures that could help and/or assist with planning an overall longer-term return.
The Company must demonstrate that it meets its duty of care to provide a safe place to work for its employees. If you can do this and include any additional measures that may be required for your workplace then it is difficult to see how an employee can continue to refuse to return to work.
There may be extreme circumstances where the employee cannot return to work but in our experience the reasons for this are self-evident to both parties.
We can assist with these types of discussions.
Annual Leave and travel restrictions
Now the government advises against all non-essential international travel and travel in or out of the country is still restricted to essential reasons only with some exceptions or ‘reasonable excuses’ for travelling to a port or airport for the purposes of travelling abroad.
- To go to college or school if you must be there in person
To go with a child or a vulnerable adult to school if they must be there in person
- To work or travel related to your business
- To go to a medical or dental appointment, or to go to an appointment with someone you live with, or a vulnerable person
- To seek essential medical, health or dental services, or to accompany someone you live with, or a vulnerable person who needs essential treatment
- To care for a family member or for other vital family reasons
- To go to a funeral
- To meet a legal obligation (for example, to appear in court)
- To give access to a child to the other parent of the child, or to access a child that you have a right of access to
- To leave Ireland if you are not resident in Ireland
Restrictions on re-entering the Country
The guidance on restrictions on return to Ireland will depend on what is in place at the point in time which the employee arrives back in the country. Now there are two options depending on where the passenger arrives from:
- Mandatory quarantine requirements apply to all persons who have been overseas in the 14 days prior to entering Ireland.
- Everyone arriving into the country must quarantine at the address specified on their Passenger Locator Form.
- The length of quarantine depends on negative PCR tests, the period of quarantine can end if written confirmation of a negative or ‘not detected’ RT-PCR test result taken no less than 5 days after arrival can be produced.
- Arrivals from Designated States (Category 2 countries) must quarantine in one of the quarantine hotels. The length of quarantine is usually 12 nights, but the period of quarantine may be reduced if a passenger receives a ‘not detected’ result following an RT-PCR test that is taken on the tenth day in quarantine.
Note that the period of quarantine may also be extended if a passenger tests positive during their stay.
Employees planning holidays
It is a good idea at this point in the year to do some planning for leave for staff leave in 2021. Many will be waiting to see if international travel is possible later in the year and if no-one takes leave while waiting, the business could be under pressure later in the year to allow staff their leave entitlements.
Encouraging staff to take some leave over the next few months would help, if you believe it will be a significant issue then instructing employees to plan their leave might be the way to go. Contact us if you want to do this and we will work with you.
Ensure that any employees who are planning a trip abroad during their annual leave consider any quarantine requirements on their return (see above) and have planned for sufficient time off to cover the entire period before they book the trip.
This is an area where guidance is likely to change and the most up to date advice can be found on the Dept of Foreign Affairs website.
Employer and Employee Supports
A range of supports, including the Employee Wages Subsidy Scheme are still available. As the situation changes it would be advisable to keep up to date with these supports and how they apply to your business and ensure you withdraw from support at the appropriate time. Full details are on the Citizens Advice website.
At the moment the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) will remain open until 30 June 2021. The government have indicated they will consider the future of the PUP and will communicate decisions by the end of May 2021.
It would be reasonable to expect that this consideration would also extend to the Redundancy Rules that are currently also extended to 30 June 2021.
Finally (phew!) I have added a Covid Resources post to our website that include links to support, guides, and information on many of the topics covered in this email.