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Today's webinar took the form of a conversation between Josh Hardie, the Deputy Director-General of the CBI; Mark Bailie, who is joining BGL Group as chief executive, but is currently helping to develop the NHS Test and Trace system; and Jo Martin, a Managing Associate at Womble Bond Dickinson. Here are the main issues they discussed:
- The reopening continues
- What the CBI is focusing on now
- How Test and Trace works
- The importance of Test and Trace
- What’s incumbent upon businesses?
The reopening continues
Josh began his remarks by observing that “we’re at an important point”. This is because of what’s already happening, but also because of what’s about to happen – “over the weekend,” Josh explained, “we saw quite a few smoke signals” about the government’s evolving thinking about social distancing and financial support.
As for what’s already happening, it has been a week since non-essential retail locations were allowed to open in England. “Footfall has increased,” said Josh – on high streets, it’s increased by about 50% from the lockdown. But he went on to warn that, “year on year, it’s still down by 30%.... Reopening is not a light switch to business as usual.”
Other home nations are due to have their own versions of England’s experience. From today, non-essential shops can reopen in Wales. Most shops will reopen in Scotland on 29 June. And Northern Ireland has brought forward the opening of hotels, bars and cafes from 20 July to 3 July.
Northern Ireland has also moved to allow one-metre, rather than two-metre, social distancing between children and young people in educational settings. “It will be interesting to see where England goes,” added Josh.
What the CBI is focusing on now
As the reopening continues, the CBI is focusing on three areas, said Josh:
- “The next wave of financial support.” As the current furlough scheme winds down over the next few months, there are options for new (sector-by-sector) government support packages – perhaps in the areas of Business Rates, VAT and grants. The CBI’s own thinking is underpinned by the principle that, in Josh’s words, “a job saved today is far more cost-effective than dealing with mass unemployment tomorrow”.
- “Protecting workers.” And not just in the financial sense. The CBI recently conducted a survey on protective clothing and found that, almost regardless of the government guidance, 79% of businesses are “expecting increased use of PPE – and gloves and masks – in the workplace” in the months ahead. What can be done to maintain the supply of that PPE?
- “Informing the government’s decision-making.” There are a number of live debates – from the 14-day quarantine period to one-or-two-metre social distancing – where the CBI is representing the views of business. “We’re not here to push the government in one direction or another,” emphasised Josh. “We’re here to help them balance the risk [between health and economic outcomes]…. Making sure they’ve got the right data to make those decisions.”
How Test and Trace works
Mark usefully explained how the official Test and Trace system works. It starts with the symptoms of Covid-19: “If anyone has any symptoms at all… they should go and get a test straight away.” The country has the capacity for “well over 200,000 tests a day,” and “because of where the virus is at the moment, we’re not using that capacity” – so it should be quick and easy to get tested.
Then, if you turn out to have Covid-19, the tracing system kicks in. Here, “contact” is the determining factor – anyone you live with is likely to have to self-isolate for 14 days, but others may have to, too. Mark outlined the rules, which are available online: “[Contact includes] someone you’ve been within two metres of for more than 15 minutes, or within one metre for more than one minute…. Also, face-to-face or being coughed on.”
When someone receives a positive Covid-19 result, one of the country’s 25,000 contact tracers will get in touch with them (by phone) to determine who among their family, friends, workmates and acquaintances might fall within these definitions. Those people will then be contacted by the contact-tracing system and told to self-isolate for 14 days.
Mark also described the role that the contact-tracing app plays in this process. The government is currently moving from the NHS’s own proprietary app to the “Apple and Google protocol” – but, in any case, the app is more a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the initial call from a contact tracer.
“The human contact tracing is the fundamental element,” said Mark. It’s best if people do their best to remember whom they’ve met, when, and for how long – so they’ve got the information to hand should they test positive for coronavirus.
The importance of Test and Trace
Some businesses – including some of our audience members – are worried about the challenges that could be created by the Test and Trace system. For example, as Josh pointed out, a business that tops up statutory sick pay could suddenly face a large new expense on their balance sheet. Whereas businesses that offer just statutory sick pay could find that their employees face a disincentive to take time off work, even if they are ill.
Mark, however, explained the importance of sticking by the system. “If we can get to someone’s contacts within 48 hours of someone’s positive test,” he said, “we think we can break the chains of transmission.” This should be good for business in general, not least because it could prevent future lockdowns. “We know that if we can get to a positive test, if we can isolate everyone around them… we might not even need to get to a local lockdown.”
Besides, Mark continued, it could even be good for specific businesses – or at least better than some of the alternatives. “I understand that isolation is a cost to business and sick pay is a cost to business…. But my ultimate concern is multiple chains of transmission in [a workplace] and having to close the [workplace] down, rather than isolated smaller chains of transmission.”
He also emphasised that if businesses stick to the Covid-secure guidance, maintaining good social distancing and hygiene within the workplace, then its employees shouldn’t really have to come into “contact” with each other. In his experience, this is what most businesses are doing, particularly in work areas. The outbreaks that are happening tend to happen in “social areas,” such as canteens and smoking zones.
“People come off the shop floor and almost switch out of that state of mind,” Mark concluded.
What’s incumbent upon businesses?
Jo ran through many of the responsibilities that employers and employees face in the world of Test and Trace; including on sick pay, annual leave, and proof of contact. The trickiest area, however – and the one she spent most time on – was data. How should companies handle the data they might receive on employees’ health and movements?
The word “proportionate” kept coming up. “You need to be proportionate in how you process (any health data) and secure in how you store it.” In the first instance, this might mean revisiting your GDPR procedures and conducting an impact assessment.
Otherwise, Jo stressed the importance of communication: “Good leadership; clear communication; assessing data protection plans and communicating them to your staff.”
Besides, most of the data should be kept on Public Health England servers – which limits what businesses will have to handle, anyway. And even the full data is unlikely to be terribly sensitive. As Mark explained, “We’re in the process of putting together some guidance on this. What we need for Test and Trace is: name, date and time of contact, and contact numbers. And we only need it for about 21 days.”
Key questions we answered:
- Josh, how have employers responded to the introduction of the Test and Trace system so far?
- Businesses understand that an effective Test and Trace (T&T) system is vital to get the UK economy going again. Employers want to play their part and are keen to ensure their staff follow public health guidance, and so they’re taking this very seriously.
- The questions we’re being asked by businesses have been focused in two main areas:
- What are my responsibilities in relation to employment law and data?
- What are the potential costs and impact on my operations if one or more of my staff have to isolate?
- But businesses are looking for further clarity, to plan and anticipate the potential scale of absences. It’s also clear that stronger alignment is needed between the available guidance and the reality of the system in the workplace, to avoid unnecessary isolations.
- Many firms are also concerned about the cost implications of potential isolations. Roughly 75% of firms offer employees occupational sick pay schemes that are more generous than Statutory Sick Pay. And figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that the average worker loses 4.4 days each year to sickness or injury, significantly less than the 14-day absence period that would be required.
- At a time when cashflow is restricted and jobs are at risk, it’s clear more support is needed.
- Finally, firms have raised a variety of data and privacy concerns linked to T&T, such as GDPR, health privacy, and the record keeping that’s required.
- Mark, how does the system work?
- If someone has symptoms, they should get a test straight away.
- Once we get the positive test, we then source the contacts that person has made. This means someone you’ve been within two metres of for more than 15 minutes or one metre for more than a minute. We then ask those people to self-isolate for 14 days.
- If we can get to someone’s contacts within 48 hours of a positive test, we think we can stop the chains of transmission. Therefore, we can halt the spread of the virus, and we have a better chance of ensuring disruption to the economy.
- So far, we’ve had a 90% success rate of getting people to quarantine, which is encouraging.
- On the app, we are moving to a Google-Apple protocol, which allows for national apps that are built using it to talk to each other.
- Jo, what is the responsibility of employers and employees, and what does the law say about this?
- The first responsibility for employers is to ensure a safe workplace for their employees.
- Some employers have been asking me if they can trust the word of their employees. In this context, employers can ask for evidence from the employee that they have been told to self-isolate.
- Legally speaking, that person is entitled to statutory sick pay during that period of quarantine, or the employee can decide if they want to take the period as annual leave. It is entirely up to the employee.
- It is also important to keep employees informed on how their data might be stored or used.
- Jo, what is good practice between employers and employees?
- Communication will always help. The guiding principle is always reasonableness on employment law.
- Good leadership, clear communication, updating relevant policies, assessing your data protection plans and communicating them to your staff, all of these will help keep your staff calm.
- If someone has been told to self-isolate, employers should lay out the company’s sick pay policy to an asymptomatic employee. They would appreciate knowing your policy on that.
- Jo, if an employee refuses to take a test, is that a disciplinary offence?
- It could be. But take care before issuing disciplinary proceedings. In most cases, if an employee does not want to take a test, it is unlikely to be because of bloody-mindedness. So, you have to be careful to understand why they’re not taking a test.
- But it could merit disciplinary proceedings because of the risk to others.
- Mark, if I breach a request to go into isolation, am I breaking the law?
- It is a voluntary scheme.
- But while the disease is mild for most people, it can be deadly for others. Most people understand that the risk of them creating another strain of transmission could lead to someone’s relative dying, for example, and therefore will want to do the right thing.
- Mark, we are seeing a resurgence in infections globally. Could the Test and Trace system remove the need for further lockdowns?
- The reason we have invested so much into testing and the Test and Trace system is because we know that if we can isolate the people who have tested positive quickly, we may not even need to implement a local lockdown.
- For example, South Korea’s speed in isolating infections has meant they haven’t had to enforce any localised lockdowns.