Vulnerable workers

Certain health and demographic factors mean some people are more likely to develop and/or suffer serious consequences from COVID-19. These include age, sex, ethnicity, where you live, deprivation, occupation and medical conditions.

Read our health and safety briefing on identifying workplace risks due to COVID-19, clarifying whether there is an increased risk for black, Asian and minority ethnic workers and mitigating these risks.

This guidance will mainly focus on medical conditions, or “co-morbidities”, that place people at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

What health conditions put people at increased risk?

There are two levels of higher risk:

  • high risk (clinically extremely vulnerable) – people who fall into this category have been asked to “shield”; and
  • moderate risk (clinically vulnerable) – people who fall into this category have asked to follow physical distancing guidance particularly stringently.

Find out more about the two higher risk groups.

What is the government guidance for people who are shielding?

In March, the governments of the UK asked those who are at high risk to take extra precautions while the virus was at its peak. This was known as “shielding” and required affected individuals to curtail their contact with others. As the lockdown eases, the UK’s governments are easing their shielding arrangements.

England

From 1 August, shielding has been paused. The government says that if you are extremely clinically vulnerable you should carry on working from home wherever possible, but that you can go into the workplace if it is “COVID-secure”. You should still try to keep your overall social interactions low.

However, there are exceptions to this pause, depending on whether the area in which you live is subject to local lockdown arrangements. There is specific guidance on what will happen if there is a local lockdown in your area.

Scotland

Shielding was paused on 1 August. There are some exceptions, for example if your doctor advises that you should continue to shield due to your health conditions. This means that, in general, people who have been shielding can now follow the same advice as everyone else in Scotland.

The Scottish government has said that everyone who can work from home should continue to do so, regardless of health conditions.

Wales

The government in Wales has said it will look to pause shielding from 16 August, unless the number of COVID-19 cases in the community starts to rise significantly.

If shielding arrangements are paused in Wales, the government says that you can go into the workplace, as long as it is COVID-secure – but that you should work from home if you can.

Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Executive paused shielding on 1 August. While the guidance does not address whether the clinically extremely vulnerable should go into the workplace, it would be prudent for employers to follow the guidance of other governments and enable employees to work from home wherever possible.

What happens if the rate of infection increases again?

All governments in the UK have said that those who are clinically extremely vulnerable could be advised to shield again if the situation changes and there is an increase in the transmission of COVID-19 in the community.

What can employers do to keep vulnerable people safe?

It is important that, as lockdown is eased, employers continue to take steps to ensure that those who are at increased risk are protected – both those who are at high and moderate risk.

Employers must carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, in consultation with union representatives, and implement measures to reduce risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable. The assessment should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are vulnerable to COVID-19, and everyone should benefit from the highest standards of protection.

All UK governments recommend that those who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 should be particularly stringent in following physical distancing measures. Employers should make this as easy as possible for people, for example by ensuring they can continue to work from home, in line with government guidance.

If those who are extremely clinically vulnerable cannot work from home, the government says they should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles that enable them to adhere to physical distancing guidelines. It may be appropriate for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals to take up an alternative role or adjusted working patterns temporarily.

Additionally, many clinically vulnerable employees will qualify as disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act, and continued homeworking may be a reasonable adjustment.

Employers should also consider those who live with clinically extremely vulnerable individuals when they are arranging work and schedules.

One-to-one conversations between workers and their line managers will help managers understand how the risks and mitigation measures affect those who report into them. Workers may require additional support and reassurance that their safety is a priority. This should an opportunity to discuss workers’ wider geographical, social and economic contexts that may place them at a higher risk.

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If you have further questions about this issue contact us for more help.