COVID-19 is classed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. As the risk of infection from the virus continues, it poses an ongoing challenge to many organisations.
This factsheet provides an overview of the current coronavirus situation. It explains what the virus is and gives advice on how employers should respond and support employees by being prepared, particularly looking after employees’ health and safety and developing flexible resourcing plans.
We're updating this factsheet regularly to ensure it reflects government advice as this evolves.
See the full A-Z list of all CIPD factsheets.
What is coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS-CoV and SARS (Cov). The official name for this new disease is COVID-19.
COVID-19 spreads where there is close contact between people. If someone with the virus coughs or exhales and is close to someone else, the other person could catch it by breathing in droplets of infected fluid. Most people infected with the virus have mild symptoms and recover, but some experience more serious illness and may need hospital care. People over 40 seem to be more vulnerable, as are those with weakened immune systems or an underlying health condition such as diabetes, cancer and lung disease. The virus also appears to have a disproportionate impact on people from ethnic minorities.
The incubation period of COVID-19 is between 2 and 14 days. Common signs of infection include a high temperature, a new continuous cough, or a change or loss of sense of smell, though there are other symptoms, and some people who have the virus are asymptomatic. In November 2021 the new Omicron variant was identified.
In the light of the rapid increase in Omicron cases, on 12 December the UK Chief Medical Officers and NHS England National Medical Director recommended to ministers that the UK COVID-19 alert level should increase from Level 3 to Level 4, meaning that transmission is high or rising exponentially.
Four vaccines have been approved for use in the UK so far, and the NHS continues to roll out an effective nationwide vaccination programme. Read our guide for employers on preparing for the COVID-19 vaccination. From November 2021, anyone working or volunteering in a care home in England needs to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless exempt – see the Government’s operational guidance. In September 2021 the Government also launched a consultation on protecting patients by mandating vaccination for frontline health and social care staff in England. However, there is now a consultation to remove vaccination as a condition of deployment for health and social care staff.
How employers should respond to COVID-19
As infection from the virus continues to circulate, all employers and workers are still being affected in some way. Protecting people’s health and wellbeing should still be at the heart of every employer’s response.
We’ll continue to signpost latest developments, collate and publish updated resources, more detailed guidance and FAQs on our Responding to the coronavirus hub.
Be informed and prepared
Keep up to date with government and public health advice: Employers should keep up to date with the situation as it develops, using official and expert medical sources such as GOV.UK, the National Health Service and NHS 111online coronavirus service. Government data on COVID-19 is updated regularly. Continue to implement the Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance – this remains in place in England until 1 April 2022.
On 21 February 2022 the Prime Minister announced that Coronavirus restrictions in England will progressively end between 21 February and 1 April 2022. Mandatory rules are being replaced with advice and individual responsibility. See what restrictions remain in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Check out the CIPD’s new FAQs for more detailed advice on upcoming changes.
From 24 February 2022 in England, there will no longer be a requirement to self-isolate. Guidance remains in place for those who test positive to stay at home and avoid contact with others for at least five full days. Staff should only leave home and return to work after they have received two negative test results on consecutive days. Workers are no longer legally required to tell their employer if they need to self-isolate, although employers can still request that workers communicate this. See government and NHS advice as it develops.
Community and workplace testing have played a key role in controlling the spread of the virus in all four nations. In England everyone without coronavirus symptoms can access free lateral flow tests but from 1 April PCR and lateral flow testing will be no longer available for most people.
The government has published ‘'COVID-19 secure’ guidelines during the pandemic to help employers reduce risks surrounding a return to the workplace, but from 1 April this will be replaced with new public health guidance, and employers will no longer have to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their health and safety risk assessments.
Look after people's health, safety and wellbeing
People’s health, safety and wellbeing remains a key concern, as our FAQs on workplace safety make clear. Employers' duty of care includes anyone who is working remotely.
As well as following the latest government guidance, this CIPD guide will help your organisation to manage workplace safety.
If you’ve shifted your workforce to home working, make sure you keep in touch with people and look out for their wellbeing as it can be an isolating experience. Encourage managers to have supportive one-to-ones with people and set up virtual team meetings.
Our Returning to the workplace guide has advice for organisations as more employees can return to a physical workplace.
We’ve worked in partnership with organisations including the Society of Occupational Medicine, Acas and Mind to produce a guide for recovering workers to help them manage a safe return to a workplace. Guidance from the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors advises on creating safe working practices during COVID-19. Our Planning for hybrid working guidance takes organisations through key steps in planning for a safe, flexible and phased return to workplaces.
Self-isolation, and Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)
The rules on self-isolation after close contact with someone who has tested positive for Coronavirus are changing. In England, from 24 February the legal duty to self-isolate is replaced with guidance and employees are not legally obliged to tell their employers when self-isolation should apply to them. However, employers and employees should still follow Government guidance for those with COVID-19. The self-isolation guidance means that staff who test positive should stay at home and avoid contact with others for at least five full days, only returning to work after they have received two negative test results on consecutive days. Employers should tell staff with the virus to only return to work after testing negative. See our Self-isolation FAQs.
At the start of the pandemic, the government announced a range of new measures around SSP, but from 24 March the special COVID-19 sick pay provisions are removed. People with COVID-19 will still be eligible for SSP subject to the normal provisions, but the day-one eligibility for sick pay for those who test positive will no longer apply
In England, people on low incomes who needed to self-isolate could claim a £500 Test and Trace Support payment but this also comes to an end.
During the pandemic, many people needed to ‘shield’ if classed as 'clinically extremely vulnerable'. There is no longer formal shielding for these groups of people in England but the HSE has advice on how to protect vulnerable workers during COVID. There’s different advice for protection of these people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Medical evidence for SSP
New temporary rules from 17 December 2021 mean that employees do not need to provide employers with medical evidence for the first 28 days of absence. This applies to absences beginning on or after 10 December 2021, up to and including absences starting before 26 January 2022. See our Self-isolation FAQs.
The government has also introduced a temporary alternative to the fit note for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak whereby those in self-isolation can obtain a notification via NHS 111 to use as evidence for absence from work. Employers can check if an isolation note is valid using an online service.
Many organisations are treating sickness absence related to COVID-19 (including that due to people self-isolating) outside of their normal sickness absence reporting system. This includes people who are suffering from ‘long COVID’.
Employers should be as supportive as possible towards employees who are home schooling and/or have to juggle last-minute childcare. Employers should consider flexible approaches to how people can carry out their role.
Wider health and wellbeing concerns
COVID-19 is still with us and many people will continue to have concerns. Reassure people and keep them well informed about your organisation’s health and wellbeing policies and contingency plans.
Make sure everyone, including managers, understands which sick pay and leave policies apply and if these are changing. Actively communicate this advice to employees.
Ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency and return-to-work plans and how to discuss the situation with any concerned employees. They also need to know and where to signpost people to for further advice or support, including employee assistance programmes and/or counselling.
People professionals and employers need to be aware that some people who contract COVID-19 may experience ongoing long-term symptoms, broadly known as ‘Long COVID’, even if they initially had a mild illness.
More research is needed to understand the illness, but organisations need to provide support for any employees experiencing long-term health impacts, including educating line managers about the condition, adjustments to working hours, phased return to work, and access to occupational health and/or counselling services if needed. Visit our hub page with long COVID resources.
Promote the resources you have available to support people’s health and wellbeing generally, including those through an employee assistance programme. If large numbers of people are still working from home where this is possible, provide ongoing support and communications. Some could start to feel socially isolated after such a long period based at home. Supporting employees’ mental wellbeing is crucial whether or not people are attending a place of work or continuing to work from home indefinitely. We’ve worked with the Society of Occupational Medicine and the Royal College of Psychiatrists to produce a Sustaining work-related mental health post-COVID-19 toolkit.
The risk of infection from the virus is still present. Keep in mind anyone who may be more at risk due to being clinically vulnerable, and/or due to a pre-existing health condition, or disability, ethnicity, age, or pregnancy, or because they were unable or unwilling to be vaccinated, and be aware of the additional duties you have as an employer to specific groups of employees.
Develop flexible resourcing plans
As part of your contingency plan, introduce more flexible resourcing strategies to maintain essential services or production in case of staffing shortages.
Include provision for hybrid working to help facilitate a safe return to workplaces – our research shows that post-pandemic, the majority of workers want to continue to work from home at least some of the time, presenting new opportunities for organisations to establish new ways of working. There's more in our Planning for hybrid working guide.
Maximise the use of technology to facilitate remote contact, for example, video conferencing to facilitate remote meetings. Support their health and safety, for example by carrying out risk assessments using self-completion questionnaires that can be completed remotely.
In 2020 the government changed the rules on carrying over annual leave during COVID-19 and workers who didn't take all their statutory annual leave can carry it over into the next two leave years.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE. (2020) Coronavirus action plan. London: DHSC.
DEPARTMENT FOR BUSINESS, ENERGY & INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY. (2020) Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19). London: BEIS.
SOCIETY OF OCCUPATIONAL MEDICINE (2021) COVID-19 return to work guide: for recovering workers. London: SOM.
WAKELING, A. (2021) The road to enlightenment: work and mental health in the pandemic. London: Acas.
BASKA, M. (2020) Coronavirus: HR and facilities teams must work together to keep workplaces hygienic. People Management (online). 6 March.
CHURCHILL, F. (2020) Staff anxiety the biggest coronavirus challenge for businesses, survey finds. People Management (online). 20 March.
CHURCHILL, F. (2021) Can employers force their staff to have the Covid vaccine? People Management (online). 25 February.
COX, J. (2021) How to handle staff nervous about returning to work. People Management (online). 4 August.
HOWLETT, E. (2020) Will workplace testing become mandatory? And how should HR approach it? People Management (online). 10 September.
HOWLETT, E. (2021) Should HR be worried about long Covid? People Management (online). 28 January.
HOWLETT, E. (2021) Navigating a safe and healthy return to the office. People Management (online). 27 May.
MILLS, E. and WEST, A. (2021) Can employers insist on staff returning to the office? People Management (online). 6 August.
OWEN, J. (2020) Majority of employees want to work from home for most of the week, research finds. People Management (online). 11 September.
STREET, B. (2021) Mitigating Covid’s unequal impact on the workforce’s mental health. People Management (online). 15 March.
SUFF, R. (2021) Vaccinations: just one piece of the return-to-workplace jigsaw. CIPD Voice. Issue 28. 12 April.
This factsheet was last updated by Rachel Suff: Senior Employee Relations Adviser, CIPD
Rachel informs CIPD policy thinking on health and wellbeing as well as employment relations. She has over 20 years’ experience in the employment and HR arena.
Explore our related content
COVID-19: returning to the workplace
This guide will help you plan your ongoing return to the workplace in light of the COVID-19 pandemic
Insight from senior leaders on how they have maintained trust and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic
CIPD experts, leaders and practitioners tackle the key issues and questions around the pandemic
This guide provides advice on how mental health can be supported during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a briefing template for line managers