New coronavirus variants

Last updated: 28 Jan 2021

Like all viruses, the SARS-COV-2 – the virus which causes COVID-19 – has mutated since it first came to light. Most mutations are harmless, but a new variant which originated in south east England in late 2020 is more transmissible than previous strains in circulation.

The variant, known as B117, is estimated to be around 70% more transmissible and is increasingly prevalent in the UK. Other variants have emerged in other countries, but they are currently in smaller numbers in the UK.

What should my employer do?

It is important that employers review their COVID-19 risk assessments to ensure they are sound; their protocols are being followed; that all employees are treated equally and have full access to protective measures; and to assess whether controls should be more rigorous. This may involve things such as:

  • Restricting access to physical workplaces, ensuring that the only people allowed to access them have key tasks to complete that cannot be carried out at home. With the re-introduction of the national “stay at home” lockdown, this is backed in law and by government guidance. Consideration should be given to how staff travel to the workplace, with use of public transport limited as far as possible;
  • Use of face masks, particularly in common areas of workplaces
  • Assessing whether higher rates of ventilation can be provided to rooms or areas in the workplace, or closing poorly ventilated spaces;
  • Ensuring those who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) can work from home, in line with the government’s reintroduction of shielding. Where staff members cannot work from home due to the nature of their job, employers should offer them special paid leave. This should extend to members of staff who live with people who are CEV, if they wish.

With any risk arising out of work, employers must reduce it to the lowest level reasonably practicable. If employers have been reluctant to implement controls, arguing they are not reasonably practicable, now is the time to implement them.