New shielding guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable
After being paused in August, shielding for those in England resumed in time for the national lockdown implemented from 5 November until 2 December. However, the stringency of the shielding rules re-introduced is not the same as it was in March. Clinically extremely vulnerable individuals have been strongly urged to follow the new guidelines which include:
- staying at home as much as possible, except to go outdoors to exercise or attend health appointments;
- working from home if possible but do not attend the workplace (although people in the same household who are not clinically extremely vulnerable can still attend work, in line with the national restrictions); and
- avoiding all non-essential travel while continuing to travel to hospital and GP appointments unless told otherwise by their doctor.
The guidance also states that most children originally on the shielded patient list can still attend school as evidence has shown there is a very low risk of children becoming seriously unwell from coronavirus. This has meant that the parents of clinically vulnerable children have been able to continue to go into work, with reduced childcare issues, if they cannot work from home.
Just as during the first lockdown period in England, letters have been sent out to those in this category, providing them with further details of the updated guidance and how to access the support available. This may have made it easier for employers to determine which members of staff they need to prioritise first in order to enable them to work from home, if they were not already doing so, or work out any alternative arrangements for their work to be covered.
As employers may already be aware, those who are advised to shield will once again be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they are eligible, however there are some key points to bear in mind.
SSP is payable for only 28 weeks. If a further absence occurs within eight weeks of the end of the last SSP entitlement period (or shielding period), this will be a linked period of SSP, so entitlement continues where the last period left off. It will therefore be necessary to consider, in light of previous shielding absences, how much SSP entitlement is left per employee.
It is crucial that employers do not assume that the end of the national lockdown period in England will also bring an end to the shielding requirements currently in place. It is possible that shielding, in its newest form, may continue so employers will need to keep SSP entitlements under review, as well as contractual sick pay entitlements.
Similarly, as shielding has also resumed in other UK nations, employers should be aware that even if it stops applying in England, it could still apply in Scotland and/or Wales. That said, the Job Retention Scheme could be a more long-term option for employers so that they can retain staff that are shielding, or caring for shielders, and in turn those members of staff will receive 80% of their normal wages up to a cap of £2,500 per month.
Keeping up with the fast-changing nature of government guidance is the safest way for an employer to ensure that their business is not contravening any legal rights that their clinically extremely vulnerable staff may have, lessening the chances of tribunal claims.