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  • Writer's pictureSusan Wakelin

Is COVID-19 still affecting employment?

Updated: May 25, 2023

The coronavirus pandemic changed our lives suddenly and dramatically in 2020. Employers experienced situations they hadn't experienced before and had to make drastic decisions without understanding the short and long-term consequences, which lead to a number of coronavirus-related complaints being made to the employment tribunals service.


2022 saw most businesses recovering from the disruptions they faced throughout the pandemic. However, coronavirus is still around and we are all learning to live with it. It is therefore important for employers to adjust their mindset, now that it is no longer mandatory for employees to self-isolate when testing positive.

Is COVID-19 still a threat to the workplace?

As of 23 February 2023, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that COVID-19 infections continue to rise once again in the UK. The estimated percentage of people living in private households testing positive for COVID-19 is:

  • 1.88% in England (1 in 55 people)

  • 1.5% in Wales (1 in 65 people)

  • 1.27% in Northern Ireland (1 in 80 people)

  • 1.83% in Scotland (1 in 55 people)

Employers therefore still need to comply with their health and safety duties around infection diseases, and base decisions they make on an assessment of the risks to their own workplace.

What happens if an employee tests positive to COVID-19?

Government advice encourages those who test positive for coronavirus to stay at home and avoid contact with other people. Employers should therefore enable employees who test positive to work from home, if they can.

Where employees cannot work from home, an employer may decide employees who test positive should still remain away from the workplace. Where the employer has made this decision and the employee is therefore unable to work, the employee should be paid in full, especially where they are otherwise well enough and are willing to attend work.

Can employers insist that employees are vaccinated?

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), by the end of August 2022, in the UK, over 9 in 10 people aged 12 years and over had received one dose, nearly 9 in 10 had received two doses and around 7 in 10 had received three or more doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. In addition to this, over 15 million people aged 50 years and over received an autumn booster in England, as at 20 February 2023.

However, there are still many who are unvaccinated for various reasons, such as those who are limited by a disability or due to their religion.

During the pandemic, some employers dismissed employees for refusing to be vaccinated. However, one employee brought a claim to the employment tribunals service, claiming their reason for being unvaccinated was due to religious belief, which is a protected characteristic. The employment tribunals service held that since their refusal to have a coronavirus vaccination was intimately related to their Roman Catholic religion, they could continue with their claim for religious discrimination. We now have to wait for the tribunal hearing and the tribunal's decision to see if this claim is upheld.

Can employers withhold sick pay for those unvaccinated?

Some employers consider withholding sick pay for unvaccinated employees who are self-isolating or unwell due to COVID-19 and cannot work from home. But, it is important to note that statutory sick pay (SSP) cannot be withheld from those who are entitled to receive it.

Where an employer pays Company sick and this is discretionary, employers may, however, choose to withhold payment over and above SSP for those unvaccinated, as long as this is approached fairly and is not discriminatory, ie where an employee was unable to be vaccinated due to a medical condition or their religious belief.

How do employers manage long COVID?

COVID-19 can cause symptoms for some people lasting weeks or months after the infection has gone, which is known as long COVID. This may cause major disruption to businesses, especially where employees are struggling to return to work.

"An estimated 2.0 million people in private households in the UK (3.0% of the population were experiencing self-reported long COVID as of 2 January 2023." – Office for National Statistics (ONS) Coronavirus (COVID-19) latest insights 23 February 2023

There are a large variety of possible symptoms for long COVID, such as depression and anxiety, feeling sick and diarrhoea. Other symptoms may be:

  • extreme tiredness

  • shortness of breath

  • chest pain or tightness

  • problems with memory or concentration

  • difficulty sleeping

  • heart palpitations

  • dizziness

  • pins and needles

  • joint pain

Where employees experience long COVID, employers should speak to them to understand their symptoms and discuss how they may be able to assist them to return to work. This may include agreeing reasonable adjustments, such as reducing or altering their hours of work.

SWan HR Consultancy (London and Kent)

SWan HR is an HR consultancy that specialises in HR support for small to medium sized businesses in the South East.

"Where HR Succeeds, the Business Achieves"

SWan HR was founded by Susan Wakelin, MCIPD, who is a qualified HR professional with over thirty years' experience, from setting up, auditing and improving HR functions to management coaching and supporting organisations through difficult situations, transformation and change.

SWan HR provides a broad range of tailored HR services including an HR audit, HR advice, HR outsourcing, HR coaching and project work for all businesses.

Free HR consultation

Contact Susan Wakelin now to take advantage of a free half-hour consultation to talk through your initial HR concerns and how you can manage these going forward.

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