Working from home and online food shopping, what are my rights if I think I should be shielding?

Credit: PA

With Covid infections soaring across the UK, and with the government insisting Plan B will not be implemented in England, for those who were previously on the clinically extremely vulnerable list (formerly the shielding group), it is a particularly anxious time. 

At the start of lockdown in March 2020, anyone considered at a much higher risk from Covid was asked to shield. The shielding programme was a way of protecting those that were regarded at higher risk of serious illness from the virus. The shielding programme ended in England in August, while Covid restrictions were lifted on July 19 in England. Many Covid restrictions also ended in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland around the same time and shielding programmes scaled down. 

Now, with the health secretary estimating infections could reach 100,000 per day as we head into winter, what are your rights and how do you stay safe in work, socialising and shopping if you are at higher risk from Covid-19?

People deemed most at risk from coronavirus were asked to shield at the beginning of the pandemic. Credit: PA

At work

Shielding for people previously considered clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV)  in England ended in August, with the government recommending a gradual return to the workplace for all.

In Scotland, there is a planned gradual return to offices, but employers are encouraged to support their employees to work from home where possible.

People are being advised to continue working at home if they can in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Charity Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation advises people who are concerned about returning to the workplace, especially those with public-facing roles, to speak with their employer as a first step. 

If you feel you can not go into the workplace, you could ask your doctor for a fit note to say you should work from home.

What should my employer do to protect me?

An employer has a legal duty to protect workers from harm, including considering the risk to workers who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. 

Charities and trade unions, recommend employers and employees take these steps to help people considered vulnerable stay safe:

  • Employers could change shift patterns so those are are considered vulnerable are working with the same people each time, or working in smaller teams

  • Try speaking to your employer about changing your working hours so you can travel at quieter times of the day. Check if you're eligible for an Access to Work grant that can pay for help getting to and from work, for example, taxis

  • Ask workers to undertake regular Covid tests 

  • Talk to your employer about working from home

  • Consider putting in a flexible working request, which is a legal right all employees have.

By law, employers are responsible for the health and safety of all employees. If you do not feel your employer is doing enough to protect you, and feel discriminated against, then you may be able to raise a formal grievance, say Acas.

Ben Goodall from the workplace advice expert said: "In a more general sense, there is nothing to prevent an individual asking to work a particular shift pattern or to work within a specific team. 

"If you can explain your reasoning to your employer and it would be beneficial to you (and in turn quite possibly the business or organisation as well, as they would also have a vested interest in your being fit and available for work) then there is a greater chance of them agreeing to your request, or working with you to find something which works for all parties."

You can ask your employer to continue working from home. Credit: Unsplash

Can you request to work from home?

An employer is legally bound to consider making 'reasonable adjustments' when an employee or job applicant has a disability.

A disability could be physical or mental; if you were shielding because you’re clinically extremely vulnerable, you are likely to be covered by the Equality Act 2010.

In England, employers can still consider working from home for people who live with someone who's at high risk. 

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People who live in Scotland and Wales should continue to work from home where possible if they live with a vulnerable person. 

Mr Goodall says: "There would be no requirement for any employee submitting a flexible working request to have been on the original ‘shielders’ list.  Those who were, however, are more likely to qualify as disabled for employment law purposes, so may be entitled to reasonable adjustments as discussed above." 

See here for greater detail about the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010.

What can I do if I feel the workplace is unsafe?

Current guidance says employers should complete a Covid risk assessment and take steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including frequent cleaning and social distancing. 

You could report your employer to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) if you have concerns about safety measures, but speak to your employer first to seek a resolution.

Can I ask colleagues to wear face coverings or for social distancing measures to be observed?  

Acas' Mr Goodall says: "This may be best addressed at organisational level, as it can result in strong reactions from people depending on their beliefs. If an employer believes it is in the best interests of their employees and workers, and possibly the general public depending on the type of work and working environment in question, to request that all staff able to wear face masks do so then that is less likely to result in unhelpful and distressing conflict among individuals. 

"There is nothing wrong with politely requesting that colleagues observe social distancing measures, wherever possible, and most of the time if these have been breached it is likely the individual had momentarily forgotten because they were concentrating on something else.  

"If the social distancing measures are not being observed it would be sensible to discuss this with your employer, perhaps proposing the issue is discussed as a collective and the employer forms a code of conduct to make clear what behaviours are expected within the workplace."

Out and about

Face masks are still mandatory in some settings in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In England, since July 19 it has been a personal choice in most settings (although it is mandatory on many trains and buses). 

If you have concerns, particularly if you have a reduced immune response, talk to your GP or specialist about any extra precautions you need to take.

Shielding involves staying at home and reducing contact with other people Credit: PA

Simple steps you can take

While we can't control the actions of others, individuals can take steps to minimise the risks they face:

  • Meet people outside if possible

  • Open doors and windows for ventilation if meeting people inside

  • Ask friends and family to take a rapid lateral flow test before visiting you

  • Limit the number of people you meet and avoid crowded places

  • Wear a face covering, particularly indoors or in crowded places

  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser regularly throughout the day

Shopping for essentials 

During the first and second coronavirus waves, supermarkets used a government list of clinically ‘extremely vulnerable’ people in order to prioritise them for online shopping slots. 

According to the Tesco website, the supermarket continues to offer priority slots for vulnerable customers.

Morrisons' Doorstep Delivery service allows customers to order groceries over the phone and pay for them when they are delivered the next day. Asda has extended its Priority Pass for elderly and vulnerable until the end of March at the earliest.

Overall, supermarkets, including Ocado, have greatly increased their online capacity since spring 2020 and it is now far easier to secure a slot.

A scheme was also launched during the first lockdown that allowed elderly and vulnerable people to register on major supermarket websites to be matched with local volunteers who can help with their shopping deliveries.

In England, the NHS Volunteer Responders programme is still available to help support those who meet certain criteria. Volunteers can collect and deliver shopping, medication and other essential supplies and can also provide a regular friendly phone call. Register for support online or by calling 0808 196 3646.

There are equivalent services in the devolved administrations.

You can order your prescription online or through an app - either through the NHS directly or via a third party, such as myGP or Boots. Depending on what services your pharmacy or dispensary provide, you may be able to get your medication delivered to you (you may have to pay). Alternatively, you can ask for someone to collect a prescription on your behalf.

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Get your booster

Waning immunity is contributing to the spread of Covid-19. 

A booster shot will further protect people at high risk of serious illness from the virus, especially as those considered clinically vulnerable were among the first to be jabbed. 

The NHS has opened a national booking service (phone and online) for eligible people who had their second vaccine six months and one week ago. You no longer need to wait to be contacted to come forward for a third jab.

Covid booster jabs

Is the booster jab the same vaccine as my first two doses?

It doesn't have to be the same vaccine that you have received before.In line with JCVI advice adults should receive either one dose of the Pfizer vaccine or half a dose of the Moderna vaccine, which means for some people their booster dose may be different from the vaccines they had for your 1st and 2nd dose.

People could also be offered a booster dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine if they cannot have the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.

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Am I eligible?

Those who are eligible for a booster include:

  • those living in residential care homes for older adults

  • all adults aged 50 years or over

  • frontline health and social care workers

  • all those aged 16 to 49 years with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe COVID-19 (as set out in the green book), and adult carers

  • adult household contacts of immunosuppressed individuals

You must have had your two doses at least six months before your booster jab.

Local health teams will prioritise care home residents and staff who are eligible and offer a booster jab by the beginning of November.

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How do I book?

You no longer need to wait to be contacted. You can book an appointment online at www.nhs.uk/covid-vaccination at one of the convenient vaccine sites across the country. People that aren’t able go online can book by phoning 119.

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