On 14 September 2021, the UK Government published its coronavirus (COVID-19) Autumn and Winter Plan for England. The Government has two plans; Plan A (to be followed if the pandemic continues not to threaten the capacity of the NHS), and Plan B (to be followed if the pandemic resurges and the NHS comes under significant pressure).
What does Plan A cover?
Under Plan A, the Government set out the following five pillars to prevent further restrictions from needing to be implemented:
- Testing and isolation;
- NHS resources; and
The Government will continue with its vaccination programme, making vaccines accessible to everyone, with a particular focus on those that are eligible for vaccines but have not yet taken up the offer, and young people (those between 12 and 15).
The Government also intends to offer booster vaccinations to high-risk individuals and older people who have received their second dose of the vaccine at least 6 months previously.
For more information on vaccines in the workplace, read Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccinations in the workplace.
Testing and isolation
Fewer restrictions on everyday life are in place in England. However, those who test positive for coronavirus must continue to quarantine for at least 10 days and take a PCR test, to prevent the spread of coronavirus. This also applies to those over the age of 18 who are not double-vaccinated and have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
However, those who live with or have come into contact with someone who has symptoms of, or tested positive for, coronavirus will not need to self-isolate if they’re:
- Fully vaccinated (ie 14 days have passed since they received their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine);
- Under 18;
- Taking part in or have taken part in a COVID-19 vaccine trial; or
- Not able to be vaccinated due to medical reasons.
Free lateral flow tests will continue to be available for the general public, while free PCR tests will continue to be available to those who have symptoms of coronavirus, have been in contact with someone with coronavirus or have been advised to take a PCR test (eg by a GP or NHS Test and Trace).
By law, employers must not ask or allow staff members who have to self-isolate to come into work.
Currently, international travel involves testing before arrival in the UK and varying requirements in the days afterwards (eg testing on day 2 after arriving in the UK) or a mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from high-risk “red list” countries.
Under the new system, the current “traffic light system” for overseas travel (with different rules for different categories of countries) will be overhauled. From 4 October, the “green” and “amber lists” will be merged into one list, meaning that travel will become easier for those travelling to and from non-red list countries.
From 4 October, testing requirements for those arriving in England who are fully vaccinated will also change. Anyone who’s fully vaccinated will no longer have to take a PCR test before travelling back to England from a non-red list country.
By the end of October, it is expected that fully vaccinated travellers will no longer need to take a PCR test on their second day after arrival from non-red list countries. Instead, this PCR test can be replaced with a cheaper lateral flow test.
Those not fully vaccinated with a vaccine recognised under England’s travel rules will need to continue:
- taking a pre-departure test;
- taking a PCR test on their second and eighth day after arriving in England; and
- needing to self-isolate for 10 days on their return.
The Test to Release Scheme is set to remain an option for those who wish to reduce their self-isolation period.
Anyone who tests positive for coronavirus will need to isolate and take a free PRC test to confirm the result.
These new measures will be expected to remain in place until at least early 2022.
Throughout the pandemic, health and care services have been provided with additional funding (£63 billion in 2020-21) to respond to the challenges they faced.
Under the Government’s Autumn and Winter plan, a further £5.4 billion will be provided to the NHS in England to support the response to the pandemic over the next 6 months.
Vaccinating healthcare staff during the pandemic is a key component to protecting staff and patients alike, and stopping the NHS from being under too much pressure. As a result, the Government has also launched a consultation on protecting (vulnerable) staff and patients by requiring COVID-19 and flu vaccinations for frontline health and wider social care staff in England.
On 19 July 2021, the rules around social distancing were replaced with advice on how members of the public could protect themselves and others, reduce the risk of transmission and manage the risk of coronavirus. As the risk of coronavirus has not disappeared, the Government will continue to provide such guidance based on the latest evidence.
For the general public, this means that the Government will continue with its messaging around:
- Frequent hand-washing and the use of hand sanitiser.
- The importance of well-ventilated rooms, especially when meeting someone indoors, or considering meeting people outside.
- The wearing of face coverings in crowded and enclosed settings.
- Taking COVID-19 tests when experiencing symptoms of coronavirus and/or after having been in contact with someone with coronavirus, and self-isolating if required.
- Trying to stay at home if unwell.
- Using the NHS COVID-19 app to check for exposure to coronavirus.
This essentially means that the Government will continue with its messaging around hand-washing and ventilation, as well as encouraging the wearing of face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces.
The Government will continue to provide up-to-date working safely guidance (which should be considered when preparing or updating Return to work risk assessments and/or Health and safety policies) and will continue to encourage businesses to:
- Speak to their staff and encourage them to stay at home or work from home (where possible), if they are feeling unwell.
- Enable staff and customers to frequently clean their hands, by providing hand sanitised.
- Ensure business premises are well-ventilated.
- Display an NHS QR code poster allowing customers to check-in using the NHS COVID-19 app, so that customers may be altered of infections. If this is done, businesses need to make sure to comply with data protection requirements.
- Consider making use of the NHS COVID Pass to check vaccination status.
What does Plan B cover?
Due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, the Government has said that it may be “possible that Plan A is not sufficient to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS” and that additional measures will be needed.
While the Government has not set out the exact point at which such additional measures will be needed, Plan B outlines some of the steps that may be taken.
Plan B involves:
- Requiring face coverings in indoor settings (eg shops and on public transport).
- Requiring vaccine passports for certain events (eg nightclubs, large outdoor events and indoor events of more than 500 people). It is expected that business will be given at least one week’s notice of this.
- Asking people to work from home where possible.
- Clearly communicating the need for caution to the public.
While the Government remains committed to taking all measures necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus and protecting the NHS from being overwhelmed, “more harmful economic and social restrictions” (such as another lockdown) will likely only be considered as a last resort.
If Plan B is not necessary, coronavirus restrictions will continue to be relaxed and the vaccine will be used to suppress the virus.