How to support employees who are vulnerable to covid-19
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Emma Gross
Emma Gross is a UK-based employment partner with international law firm Spencer West

Covid-19 has created many new issues for employers. Among the most pressing is how to support and manage staff members who are vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

As we process what lifting lockdown means for businesses, it is understandable that employees are feeling anxious about their return to the workplace and among those feeling most anxious will be employees who are classed as vulnerable to covid-19.

The best place to start is to put in place a comprehensive policy across the whole business, outlining the measures you have taken as a company to secure the health and wellbeing of all employees, and layout all of your expectations for them as members of the workforce.

Within this process, you must carefully consider the position of your vulnerable employees. It is important for employers to manage each situation appropriately and as a unique case. 

Who is vulnerable?

In the UK, the government has issued guidance highlighting two categories of vulnerable people.

The first category covers employees who are “clinically extremely vulnerable” and were advised by the NHS to shield for periods of time during the pandemic. This includes people who have received a donor organ, are undergoing chemotherapy, as well as those with serious lung conditions including severe asthma, serious heart conditions, and those receiving high doses of steroids or immunosuppressant drugs. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there are 3.7 million clinically extremely vulnerable people in the UK, with 627,000 of those in the workforce.

Employees who are within this category were advised to remain shielding until at least 31 July 2021. However, many may still feel very uncertain about returning to the workplace and may request to continue to work from home.

The second category employers will need to consider are those classed as “clinically vulnerable”, such as those who are pregnant, or over the age of 70.

Communication is crucial

If an employee is considered clinically vulnerable, be sure to open communication early, and discuss their concerns surrounding their return to the workplace. Your first consideration should be to see if their role can be adapted to enable them to work from home. If this is not a possibility, you are entitled to request they return to the workplace.

However, you must carry out a robust individual risk assessment, and take active steps to further reduce the risk of the spread of coronavirus for these employees. Based on the outcome of this risk assessment, and in the absence of the option for statutory sick pay (which is not available to the clinically vulnerable), you may offer an option of either paid or unpaid leave for a period of time.

It is important that you explore all of the available options and carry out all reasonable steps to accommodate your vulnerable employees. Failure to do so could result in a claim against you as the employer for personal injury, negligence, or a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence. 

You must also be mindful of any discrimination, as employees may also qualify as disabled under the Equality Act 2010, in which case you will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. These employees would also have the right not to be indirectly discriminated against by any policies you choose to implement regarding the return to work.