The risks of Covid-19 do not fall equally. That much we know. Age remains the biggest risk factor, while having certain underlying clinical conditions and simply being male represent others.
The impact is also “disproportionate” for people from ethnic minorities, according to a recent report. So, as the lockdown continues to be eased and employees are encouraged back to work, what do employers need to think about from an equality and diversity perspective? Just following the government guidance on creating a Covid-secure workplace is unlikely to be enough, says Vanessa Latham, Employment Partner at BLM Law.
A Public Health England report has found that people from black and Asian ethnic groups are up to twice as likely to die with Covid-19 than those from white British backgrounds.
The report, published in June, confirmed that the highest diagnosis rates of Covid-19 were in people of black ethnic groups (486 females and 649 males per 100,000 population).
“Comparing to previous years, all-cause mortality was almost four times higher than expected among Black males for this period, almost three times higher in Asian males and almost two times higher in white males,” the report said.
But it remains unclear why.
Contributory risk factors
Scientists have commented that diabetes, high blood pressure and being overweight represent high risk factors with regards to having a more severe version of Covid-19, adding that all of these risk factors are more common in Black and Asian patients.
Meanwhile, an article on the British Heart Foundation (BHF) website suggests various factors, including that ethnic minority groups are disproportionately represented in frontline roles, whether that is on the NHS or in other public facing roles such as retail and transport. “These jobs increase the risk of exposure to Coronavirus. In London, 67% of the adult social care workforce are from BAME backgrounds.
“According to NHS Workforce Statistics, people with BAME backgrounds account for approximately 21% of staff, including approximately 20% of nursing and support staff and 44% of medical staff. However, individuals with BAME backgrounds account for 63%, 64% and 95% of deaths in the same staff groups. Early findings from looking at these data sets showed 79% of these deaths were people working in hospitals. (Data supplied by Simon Lennane, NHS GP in Hertfordshire).”
Employment law considerations
A requirement to return to work – especially when full social distancing might not be practicable – therefore has the potential to amount to indirect discrimination, disability discrimination or to trigger the duty to make reasonable adjustments, says Vanessa Latham from BLM Law. She also raises the potential for claims of constructive unfair dismissal if staff resign rather than comply with a requirement to return to work.
“The best way for an employer to protect itself from such claims is to be scrupulous in following government guidance on creating a Covid-secure workplace. However, this may not be sufficient to address the specific issues that individuals may have,” adds Vanessa.
“It is therefore important to listen to and risk assess anyone who may be at increased risk on returning or may have personal circumstances that impact on a return to the workplace and take steps to mitigate the risk.
“If research suggests they are at enhanced risk, even if this doesn’t require them to shield within the guidance, serious consideration should be given as to whether they can continue to work from home and even if they can’t, whether they should be required to come in.”
Sensible ‘return to work’ steps for all
If work can still be done at home, it should be.
Take all reasonable steps to provide all employees returning to the workplace with a safe place to work and a safe way of working.
In the first instance, this involves carrying out a risk assessment to identify the risks of transmission of Covid-19. Then take steps to reduce those risks.
Keep employees fully informed of the results of this risk assessment.
Consult either the appropriate health and safety representatives – or the employees directly – over any new safety measures that are to be introduced.
Central to these will be handwashing and hygiene procedures, with employees given clear instructions.
Enhanced cleaning regimes will be needed for busy areas and surfaces that are touched regularly.
Maintain social distancing wherever possible. Introduce appropriate signage, including floor-tape to mark out 2m distances. Where possible, introduce one-way systems.
Consider using barriers or screens, having employees working back-to-back rather than face-to-face and reducing the number of people each employee has to interact with.
Advise employees to avoid public transport wherever possible. And / or make enhanced parking facilities available or even make use of the government’s cycle to work scheme. Introduce flexible start and finish times.
Make allowances for any periods of forced isolation indicated to individuals as part of the new track and trace system. The same applies, of course, to those following government guidance on shielding if clinically vulnerable.
Listen carefully to any concerns that employees raise about the prospect of returning to work. Take all reasonable steps to minimise risk. And be flexible.
Ensure the continuation of care pathways. Employees should be kept fully up to speed with when, where and how to access health and wellbeing support, such as virtual GP services and employee assistance programmes.