The Omicron Variant

Each day brings fresh news of Omicron the latest twist in the seemingly never-ending story of pandemic threats and responses.  At the time of writing this article we have 15 confirmed cases in the UK, but that number is expected to rapidly escalate over the next few weeks.

With a large proportion of the adult population double jabbed there’s now fears that the new variant may bypass the effect of those vaccinated, raising a demand for the booster programme which to date has focussed on those aged 50+.   The government announced a major expansion of the rollout as part of efforts to help stop a potential wave of infections. Boosters are to be offered to all over-18s in the UK, while children aged 12 to 15 will be invited for a second jab.

Professor Chris Whitty has raised concerns that analysis of Omicron indicates that its spike protein has mutated, this is important because ALL vaccinations concentrate on this aspect of the virus to affect its levels of protection.  The worry is, if Omicron has mutated sufficiently it will prove to be capable of infecting vaccinated members of the public.  It is very early days, and we are still learning about the new strain of Covid.

The Government announced a series of measures Saturday 27th November.

1. Face masks are now compulsory in shops, banks, post offices and hairdressers, as well as on public transport unless individuals are exempt from doing so. Masks are also being recommended in England’s schools. Staff and pupils in Year 7 and above have been “strongly advised” to cover their faces in communal areas outside classrooms.

2. Anyone entering the UK from any destination abroad will have to take a PCR test two days after arrival and self-isolate until they have a negative result.

3. Anyone who has been in close contact with a case of Omicron will have to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

4. The new measures will be reviewed within three weeks.

5. To date there have been 14 cases discovered in the UK.

6. Omicron can be spread between people who are double vaccinated.

7. The variant has an “extensive” mutation which means it may “at least in part” reduce the protection of the vaccine over time, hence the need to step up the booster programme.

8. Omicron “really changes the risk/benefit calculations” for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation regarding recommending vaccines to younger children, meaning children under 12 could soon be eligible.

What action should employers be taking?  There has been no direct reference to returning to a “work from home if you can” or the use of face masks at large public gatherings however with the news providing rather stark warnings of speed of transmission in South Africa it may be time to make your own proactive moves.

Health secretary Sajid Javid insisted (November 28) that it was “nowhere near” time to reintroduce social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance.  The Prime Minister’s spokesman said it was up to employers to decide on the “right balance” for them when it came to whether staff worked from home or the office.

Yet again a difficult choice over health and safety has been left to individual organisations who will need to decide on what they may consider most appropriate and proportionate leading to an obvious mix of responses and very likely confusion and frustration. 

  • The recommendation would be to take the most reasonable, manageable, and considered approach given the known facts. Based on prior experience, most recently the Delta variant, Omicron is likely to have a significant impact on infection rates and consequentially disrupt many lives.

  • The priority should be the health, safety, and welfare of employees and to this end permitting time to attend a booster jab appointment is one of the more straightforward decisions.

  • As to the position taken with those who’ve to date refused to be vaccinated greater care needs to be taken. It would be considered unlawful to impose a blanket requirement for ALL staff to be fully vaccinated and/ or receive a booster jab however it would be appropriate to review where unvaccinated staff are in contact with vulnerable members of the public or colleagues.

  • Use of face coverings in communal areas, in meetings both internally and if visiting others would be a prudent step and is being adopted by Aviva, BT and many other larger companies. 

  • The holding of meetings either internally or offsite may be temporarily put on hold or revert to online events.

  • Working from home, if your organisation has worked to migrate staff back to the office you may wish to offer those who can conduct their work remotely the option to do so.

  • Those remaining in the office should be mindful of physical connections with colleagues and whilst social distancing has not been re-introduced by the government it would seem appropriate and respectful in the current circumstances to consider adopting a “safe distance” protocol and ensure office spaces are well ventilated and not overcrowded.

  • If your staff work in public facing roles in retail or public service their safety can be compromised and they may be subjected to abuse by those sections of the population who refuse to follow rules on face coverings.  The rules are not backed by fines or police interventions and therefore it rests with each organisation to administer.  As the MD of Iceland, Richard Walker, stated in a recent BBC news interview, he was not prepared to put staff safety on the line, by that he was referring to the strict administration of a mask policy in each store. “I think over 90% of retail staff have been threatened, assaulted or abused in the last 12 months and we alone have had over 4,000 incidents of reported verbal abuse each year,” he said.  During the first coronavirus lockdown from March-May last year, the number of incidents rose to more than 50 a week, he added. Without Government measures such as fines or custodial sentences he believes it is unfair to expect staff to police the process. 

  • Christmas Party – we know returning to a semblance of normality is long overdue but now may not be the best time to organise a big gathering for staff.  The added ingredient of alcohol would relax staff and provide a false sense of safety which could lead to a break-out of infections.  One alternative may be to work in “bubbles” and have smaller gatherings to celebrate the festive season.  It’s not the same as the big annual party but it’s safer and reduces the risk of greater exposure to the variant.

In very simple terms it’s no different to those steps we all took back in March 2020 albeit we’re rather more seasoned in our experience of Covid and as a result we need to avoid complacency and avoid putting staff back into situations of unnecessary risk.