Posted: October 4, 2021
In its COVID-19 response: autumn and winter plan 2021 document, published on 14 September, the UK central government said it would take whatever action necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, but more harmful economic and social restrictions, such as shop closures or lockdowns, would only be considered as a last resort.The Plan sets out how the government intends to address the challenges that may be posed by COVID-19 through autumn and winter, while ensuring that the NHS is not put under unsustainable pressure. The plan is set out in two parts: Plan A and Plan B.What is Plan A?

Plan A is the course that the government wants to see the country follow through autumn and winter. However, it recognises that the pandemic may change course rapidly and unexpectedly and the future remains hard to predict. There are a number of variables which include levels of vaccination, how immunity to the virus wanes over time, how quickly and widely social contact returns to pre-pandemic levels, particularly with schools and offices reopening, and whether a new variant emerges.

What is Plan B?

The government recognises that this winter could be particularly difficult for the NHS due to the impacts of COVID-19 adding to the usual increase in emergency demand and seasonal respiratory diseases, such as flu. The government anticipates the realistic possibility that the impact of flu (and other seasonal viruses) may be greater this winter than in a normal winter due to very low levels of flu over winter 2020-21.  As a contingency, the Plan therefore “outlines a Plan B in England which would only be enacted if the data suggests further measures are necessary to protect the NHS”. In assessing the risk to the NHS, the key metrics include hospital occupancy for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, intensive care unit capacity, admissions in vaccinated individuals, and the rate of growth of hospital admissions.

Plan B would be put into operation where data suggests measures are necessary to protect the NHS.

Under plan B, the steps that the government considers may be needed to help control transmission of the virus while seeking to minimise economic and social impacts are:

  • Communicating clearly and urgently to the public that the level of risk has increased, and with it the need to behave more cautiously.
  • Introducing mandatory vaccine-only COVID-status certification in certain settings, such as at night clubs and large-scale events.
  • Legally mandating face coverings in certain settings (which will be decided at the time).
  • Asking people to work from home if they can, for a limited period.

FSB has said that businesses of all sizes will need help to prepare for likely scenarios, and at the moment the information is too light – for example there is nothing on what triggers are likely to cause the shift from Plan A to Plan B.  One week’s notice is also very tight.  FSB will be consulted on the next evolution of the safer workplace guidance, and will communicate with members.

One area missing from the plan as it stands is free workplace testing, which has now closed, and FSB will be pushing for its reinstatement if any restrictions are required.  The government states that as much prior notice as possible of these steps being implemented will be given to the public and Parliament, with updated guidance to businesses and the public being issued.

The government recognises that working from home causes more disruption and has greater immediate costs to the economy and some businesses than the other Plan B interventions, so a final decision would be made based on the data at the time.

However, it recognises that high levels of homeworking have played an important role over the past 18 months in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months. By re-introducing this measure, the government would be seeking to reduce the transmission risk inside and outside of the workplace, including by reducing the number of people taking public transport and the number of face-to-face meetings and social activities, and thereby reducing community and household transmission.

Employers and employees will of course be well-versed in homeworking as an emergency response to the pandemic, so procedures will already have been in place which employers can reinstate should this become necessary in England under the Government’s ‘plan B’. FSB members have access to the FSB Legal Hub, which includes a homeworking policy where this is introduced as a temporary measure due to Covid-19 and health and safety guidance in relation to homeworking.

And if a greater response is needed?

The Plan concludes that beyond Plan B “more harmful economic and social restrictions would only be considered as a last resort”.  The government anticipates that due to the vaccination programme, it should be possible to handle a further resurgence of COVID-19 cases with less damaging measures than the lockdowns and economic and social restrictions deployed in the past.

It is worth noting, however, that beyond communication and guidance there is no mention in the Plan of what government financial support will be available for businesses should restrictions need to be reintroduced or as to whether, as part of plan B or beyond, a furlough scheme and other government coronavirus schemes would be reintroduced in England should emergency measures be put back into place.  FSB is arguing that the flipside for any restrictions being brought in should be business support, which led to the flagship support schemes in 2020 and 2021 that helped millions of small businesses (with the exception of income support for limited company directors).

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