Covid: Should I be working from home or going back to the office?

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The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have reiterated their advice to work from home if possible in light of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

Working from home is not currently being advised in England.

What does the guidance say across the UK?

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon strongly encouraged people to work from home where possible as she set out her response to the new Omicron variant. The government wants employers to consider long-term "hybrid" models with a mixture of home and office working.

In Northern Ireland, ministers recently said that more people working from home would help to reduce the risk of infection both inside and outside the workplace. However, they stopped short of ordering employers to impose home working, instead asking them to support it "where possible".

In Wales, employers are encouraged to let people work from home where possible. Guidance says staff should not be "required or placed under pressure to return" to the workplace unless there's a clear business need.

In England, the work-from-home guidance ended when most Covid rules were lifted on 19 July. The prime minister's spokesman said the emergence of the new variant had not altered that position, adding that it was up to employers to decide on "the right balance".

The government had previously said it may reintroduce work-from-home advice in England for "a limited period" if the NHS comes under unsustainable pressure this winter.

What do firms have to do to keep workers safe?

Although social distancing limits no longer apply across most of the UK, businesses still have a legal duty to manage the risks to staff and customers.

Employers must follow official safety guidance and carry out Covid risk assessments for those staff who are in the office.

Safety measures can include:

  • minimising visitors
  • improving ventilation
  • using one-way systems
  • additional cleaning
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Face-coverings are now mandatory again in shops and on public transport in England, a measure already in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Vaccine passport schemes are also in place in some venues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, partly designed to protect staff who work in hospitality and events.

There is more detailed advice for some industries - including construction, hospitality and manufacturing, plus specific advice for employers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If employees feel unsafe, they can contact their local authority, Citizens Advice or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Does working from home help stop Covid spreading?

Working from home is one of the most effective ways to reduce social exposure, according to the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

It greatly limits face-to-face contact both with colleagues and on public transport.

As such, Sage says it has a "strong impact" against virus transmission and the R number, which represents a disease's ability to spread.

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Can I ask to keep working from home?

You can ask as part of a flexible working request, but employers don't have to agree, even if you've worked from home throughout the pandemic.

However, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) - which represents HR professionals - expects there will be much greater freedom and flexibility in how, when and where people work in future.

The government has launched a consultation, which closes on 1 December, which would make flexible working the default option for all staff from their first day in a job. At the moment, workers have to wait for six months.

It will also consider the current process and whether employers should have to suggest alternatives if it wants to turn down a request.

How safe is commuting by public transport?

Wearing a mask helps, as does keeping windows open, and avoiding peak journey times where possible.

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What are my rights if I am in a vulnerable group?

Many people classed as "clinically extremely vulnerable" are continuing to work from home, but if your job cannot be done remotely, your employer can ask you to return to the workplace.

However, they still have a responsibility to keep you safe, so you should raise any specific concerns you have about going back.

In addition, if you are disabled, your employer has an extra responsibility to make and pay for "reasonable adjustments".

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