Advice for employers
Test and Protect, Scotland’s approach to implementing the 'test, trace, isolate, support' strategy is a public health measure designed to break chains of transmission of COVID-19 in the community by:
- identifying positive cases
- contacting those who have been in close contact with a positive case for a long enough period of time to be at risk of infection
- supporting those required to self-isolate so that they are less likely to transmit the virus to others
Contact tracing is a process for identifying people at risk of COVID-19 infection because they‘ve been at risk of being infected by a person who has tested positive, based on physical proximity over a period of time, without any recommended mitigations in place. These close contacts are then given public health advice to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
This guidance is intended for use by both employers and employees working in health and social care settings, and non-healthcare settings.
Joint statement on fair work
The Scottish Government, along with public, private and third sector partners and the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) issued a joint statement outlining fair work expectations in July to support the transition out of lockdown. The statement still applies now and states that:
- workers should have effective voice channels, including through their trade unions, for maintaining constructive dialogue with their employers on workplace matters relating to COVID-19
- no worker should be financially penalised for following medical advice
- any absence relating to COVID-19 should not affect future sick pay entitlement or other entitlements like holiday or accrued time
- any absence related to COVID-19 should not result in formal attendance related warnings or be accumulated with non-COVID related absences in future absence management figures
- this may require flexibility in standard absence/attendance management arrangements
- this statement applies to workers who are sick or self-isolating under the Test and Protect strategy
It is critical that employers are as supportive as possible and should never ask employees to finish their self-isolation, or return to the workplace, earlier than they are advised to by Test and Protect.
Finishing the entire self-isolation period requested by contact tracers is essential for breaking chains of transmission in the community.
We cannot offer blanket assurances that certain workforces can be exempt from isolation, but if co-workers have been maintaining physical distancing, then they may have no or few close contacts. This is part of the discussion which takes place between a contact tracer and someone who has tested positive.
If someone is within 2m without wearing a fluid resistant surgical mask, for a cumulative period of 15 minutes, or within 1m without respiratory protection for any length of time, they are at risk of infection and therefore within scope of being identified by contact tracers as a close contact of a positive case.
Staff should, in no circumstances, return to the workplace while awaiting the result of a test. The only exception to this is those undergoing routine testing, such as care home staff and some patient facing healthcare workers. Those staff cohorts can continue working unless they develop symptoms while awaiting a test result.
Reducing transmission in the workplace
All employers should reduce the risk of transmission, and potential identification of employees as close contacts of positive cases, by carrying out a COVID-19 workplace risk assessment. A risk assessment includes taking reasonable steps to protect your workers and others from coronavirus. It will help employers manage risk, protect people from infection, and minimise the chances of employees being identified as close contacts of positive cases. Employers must:
- identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus
- think about who could be at risk
- decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed
- act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, apply mitigating measures which will reduce the risk. Further information and support to undertake a COVID-19 risk assessment can be accessed from the Health and Safety Executive
Mitigation measures which employers should consider employing include enabling people to work from home where they can do so, providing handwashing and hygiene procedures in line with guidance, and taking steps to maintain a minimum one-metre distance between people in the workplace. Consideration should be given to the design of the workplace as a whole – including break rooms and employees’ transport to and from work, particularly as these areas have been highlighted in outbreak investigations as being where workplace transmission has been occurring. To address and reduce the risk of virus transmission, the sharing of equipment and workspaces, such as hot desk spaces, desks, photocopiers, kettles, fridge and door handles, lockers, canteen trays and communally used vehicles must be kept to a minimum. Where this cannot be achieved, there must be thorough and regular cleaning, before and after use.
Business continuity planning to manage staff absence due to self-isolation is also essential. In settings affected by an outbreak, the employer must take steps to decontaminate affected areas of the workplace to avoid onward transmission of the virus.
We want people to be enabled to play their part and contribute to Test and Protect. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and customers, and any assessment of contact must have the health and wellbeing of its staff at its centre. As a result of the legal requirement on people responsible for a business to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus, it is essential that an effort is made to identify all close contacts within the workplace. If an employee contacts their employer to inform them of a positive test result before contact is made with the employer by Test and Protect, it is vital that the employee is supported by their employer to tell Test and Protect about their known close contacts in the workplace during the infectious period.
If a customer or contractor contacts a workplace to inform them of a positive test result, employers must remain vigilant, ensure that they apply relevant infection prevention and control (IPC) measures, and await further contact from Test and Protect. In the vast majority of cases, this contact will be made within 48 hours of the positive test result, if contact tracers deem it necessary.
Until a notification to self-isolate is issued by Test and Protect to employees who have been identified as close contacts of a positive case, employees can continue to work, while ensuring key measures such as physical distancing and hand and respiratory hygiene are upheld. This could include the employer implementing modifications such as permitting an employee to work from a single person office, or alone behind a Perspex screen to minimise contact with others. Additionally, in these circumstances it is advised to minimise contact with other employees during breaks, or other times when employees are removing face coverings to eat or drink.
Positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace will often lead to heightened anxiety amongst staff who will be concerned about exposure risk. Employers should ensure good communication routes are in place with its workforce to address any concerns. The contact tracer, or in the case of outbreaks the local health protection team, will undertake a risk assessment, taking into consideration mitigations in place, such as IPC measures and appropriate use of PPE, in order to determine which staff members meet the definition of a close contact. There may be some circumstances where staff members are concerned they have been exposed and feel they should be isolating. Employers, with the support of the local health protection team and contact tracing service, should ensure information and support is available to alleviate such concerns, where relevant.
In some instances, colleagues of a positive case may be given initial advice to self-isolate in advance of an in-depth risk assessment being carried out by the local health protection team. In some instances, this may show the level of exposure risk to other employees was lower than first assumed, and affected employees can return to work. If, as part of conducting the risk assessment, local health protection staff have spoken with an employer prior to rescinding an employee’s notice to self-isolate as a close contact, Test and Protect will contact the employee to notify them that they can return to the workplace.
Where employers are not managing the risk of COVID-19, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities will take action which can range from the provision of specific advice, issuing enforcement notices, stopping certain work practices until they are made safe and, where businesses fail to comply with enforcement notices, this could lead to prosecution.
Contact tracing process
Read the guidance underpinning the contact tracing process, which includes guidance for complex and/or high risk settings, such as health and social care settings. Included within those sets of guidance is the definition and classification of close contacts. Employers are advised to familiarise themselves with these definitions, understand their potential impact on the workplace, and the role of relevant workplace mitigations, to minimise the number of employees potentially being asked to self-isolate in the event of positive cases linked to the workplace.
In consideration of mitigations applied by workplaces, contact tracers will apply the following general principles for staff in health and social care settings:
- staff who have been trained in the use of, and who were wearing clinically appropriate PPE during exposure to COVID-19, should have no significant exposure risk so contact isolation is unlikely to be required (provided there has been no contact without, or a breach of, PPE)
- staff who have not been wearing clinically appropriate PPE during exposures to COVID-19 case, who meet the contact definitions described above, should be excluded from work and self-isolate in line with advice for general members of the public
- an individual risk assessment will be required to be undertaken when considering the above, to take into account risks and mitigations which the workplace and individual has put in place, including seeking assurance of a high standard of training and protocols for the use of PPE
- symptomatic staff must not report for duty, should self-isolate and arrange to be tested
In non-health and social care workplace settings where IPC and other mitigations have been put in place, including the use of PPE, an individual risk assessment will be undertaken by the Health Board Occupational Health Team, or Test and Protect team. The nature of contact that the positive case has had with other employees or clients will be assessed to identify if there is a requirement for other members of the workforce to self-isolate as close contacts.
Where an interaction has taken place through a perspex (or equivalent) screen, there should be a low risk of significant exposure, and contact self-isolation would be unlikely to be required provided that there has been no other contact as defined in section 5 of this guidance.
It will not be possible to interrupt every possible chain of transmission through Test and Protect alone. Other public health measures such as physical distancing and good hand and respiratory hygiene will remain crucial, as well as wider workplace safety measures to mitigate against e.g. potential airborne or aerosol transmission in workplaces with poor ventilation. If an employer, or employee, is concerned an assessment of contact has not taken full account of the Infection Prevention Control measures in place, it is possible to escalate this within the local Health Protection Team for review. In this instance, a decision could be made in collaboration with the contact tracing service to allow individuals to return to the workplace safely.
Test and Protect contacting employers
In certain cases, it may be required for the contact tracing service to contact the employer in order for them to provide contact details of staff affected by an outbreak.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has advised on the legal basis for processing data under COVID-19 circumstances, by NHS Scotland, local authorities and other partner organisations, including some private organisations (e.g. pharmacies and private hospitals), where an employer may be requested by the contact tracing service to disclose employee personal information, such as a mobile phone number.
Depending on the organisation, one of the following legal basis applies:
- Substantial Public Interest
- vital interests of the individual or other individuals
The Data Protection Act 2018 also allows the processing of sensitive data (e.g. some of your health data) as necessary for “reasons of public interest in the area of public health, such as protecting against serious cross-border threats to health”. The current pandemic is an example of this situation.
What employers can do
NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect tests people who have symptoms, traces people who may have become infected by spending time in close contact with someone who tests positive, and then supports those close contacts to self-isolate, if they are required to do so. That means if they have the virus they are less likely to pass it on to others. Employers will play a vital role in ensuring that their employees are aware of and able to follow the public health advice to self-isolate when asked to do so by the NHS.
Employers also have a critical role in enabling their workforces to play their part in the Test and Protect process by ensuring that employees can follow public health guidance, inform contact tracers of their close contacts when asked, and self-isolate when required or requested to do so.
Employers should follow public health guidance if an employee becomes unwell with coronavirus symptoms at work. The person should leave work to self-isolate straight away and, unless exempted, wear a face covering on route and avoid public transport. Direct them to www.nhsinform.scot or, if they can’t get online, call 0800 028 2816, to arrange to get tested. Until they have been tested and told if it is safe to leave home, employers must make sure that staff do not have to, or feel that they have to, come in to work. Employees can request an isolation note through NHS Inform.
Please give as much support to your employees as you can while they are away, including by protecting their income. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is available to those who are required to self-isolate and are unable to work as a result. SSP eligibility conditions apply. SSP is payable from the first day of sickness absence, rather than the fourth, for absences related to coronavirus where all SSP eligibility conditions are met, including being absent for at least four days in a row (including non-working days). Employers can claim the first two weeks of SSP for coronavirus related absence back from HMRC. Read further information on SSP.
Employers should not ask someone isolating to come into work before their period of isolation is complete, in any circumstances. Employers could commit an offence if subsequent workplace transmission occurs as a result of this. You can ask them to work from home if they are able to, provided the request is reasonable and they are not unwell.
Do what you can to check in on staff remotely, keep in touch as they self-isolate, and make sure they are prepared and ready to return to work at the end of their period of self-isolation. For practical support to isolate, including help picking up food, medicine or other essentials, you can point them towards the National Assistance Helpline, below.
Specialist Health Protection teams with Health Boards may, in the handling of an outbreak, also implement measures which differ from national guidance, if it is decided at a local level that such measures will assist with outbreak management and control. In these cases, both employers and employees should follow the Local Health Protections team's advice and direction rather than national guidance.
What support is available to employees
If an employee needs additional support to self-isolate safely then support, including help to access food and other essentials, is available to those who need it through the National Assistance Helpline and can be reached on 0800 111 4000. This number is available between Monday-Friday, from 9am-5pm. In partnership with Local Authorities, we have also launched, from 12 October, a Local Self-Isolation Assistance Service which will proactively get support to the people self-isolating who are likely to need it after they are asked by contact tracers to self-isolate. Read further information on how to get support.
Since 12 October, workers on low incomes who are in receipt of low income benefits and would lose income through self-isolation, can apply for a £500 payment if they are asked to self-isolate by contact tracers. This payment will be delivered through the Scottish Welfare Fund. You can find more information about this grant on this site or by phoning the National Assistance helpline.
If an employee has concerns about health and safety at work they can raise them with their line manager, workplace union, non-union health and safety representative, the Health and Safety Executive or their local authority.
Scottish Hazards provide a free and confidential service for workers seeking workplace health and safety advice and support. This phone line is open Monday to Friday: call 0800 0015 022 for support, or see their website for other ways to get in touch.
Protect Scotland app
The Protect Scotland app from NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect is a free mobile phone app designed to help us protect each other and reduce the spread of coronavirus. The app will alert users if they have been in close contact with another app user who tests positive for coronavirus. And if someone tests positive, it can help in determining contacts that they may have otherwise missed while keeping their information private and anonymous.
No organisation should be actively discouraging people from downloading the app as it is a personal app for personal use, and we are actively encouraging all employers to promote the app to their employees.
The success of the app will be dependent on the public choosing to download the app as part of their contribution to reducing the spread of this virus.
However, it is a matter for an employer what apps they choose to make available for employees personal use on corporate phones.
Self-isolation for employees
NHS Inform contains the latest guidance on self-isolation for positive cases, close contacts, both household contacts and non-household contacts.
Employers should be as supportive as possible of anyone asked to self-isolate and who needs to follow the guidance on NHS Inform.