Getting back to normal means prioritising wellbeing

Should we be worried by the recent increase in COVID-19 cases? And will the new COVID wave prevent charities and voluntary groups from getting back to normal?

With summer approaching, the UK recorded over 100,000 new cases on 21 March 2022. More than double the figure for a month earlier.

Of course, with an increase in cases comes an increase in hospitalisations. In England, they stand at their highest rate for more than a year for the over-75s. In Scotland, patients in hospital with COVD-19 have reached record levels.

Fortunately, vaccination and new treatments have made the disease a lot more manageable for most of us. Indeed, many people report symptoms similar to those of a bad cold. But I know from experience that COVID can be very debilitating.

It wasn’t just the extreme headache and the spiking fever, it was the brain fog and fatigue that were the biggest problem as they lasted weeks after the other symptoms had ended. Working during that time was out of the question; and I dread to think how bad it might have been if I hadn’t had a complete course of vaccinations.

So how should the Third Sector manage the current wave of new cases?

Going forwards, only Wales will still require organisations to undertake a COVID-19 risk assessment. For England and Scotland, compulsion has been replaced by encouragement.

But organisations in the sector have always had a civil duty of care towards their staff, volunteers and the public. What’s more, employers, in addition to their duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act are required by regulations to assess health and safety risks.

A responsible approach therefore is to continue assessing the risk from COVID-19 in our workplaces, events, and activities. When evaluating risk, you should consider not only the number of cases in your area and any relevant guidance, but also how often you expect to interact with anyone from high risk groups (i.e. those with serious health conditions). Other considerations are likely to be the age demographic, and how well prepared you are to deal with key staff calling in sick with COVID or self-isolating.

For most organisations, it will mean that familiar controls (social distancing, improved ventilation, face coverings etc.) may need to continue for a while longer. In this way we can reduce the chances of staff, volunteers or service users from becoming ill with COVID-19.

Remember, a team member with COVID-19 can easily spread it to others if they come into the workplace. Not surprisingly, the official advice in such circumstances, regardless of where you live, is to stay home and self-isolate. The employment service Acas says that employers “…should take into account keeping the workplace safe for everyone and any concerns from staff.” They say it is good practice to agree a policy with staff on self-isolation.

But with the end of free testing (1 April in England, 18 April Scotland), it will be more difficult for individuals to know whether they have COVID-19, especially if they have few or no symptoms. An agreed policy, going forwards, then becomes very helpful. It could cover not just “when to stay home” but also pay (or sick pay) for staff asked to self-isolate, testing of individuals (and whether the organisation will pay for lateral flow tests); and home-working options. The key is agreeing the policy with those it will affect, and ensuring it is properly communicated.

The pandemic may no longer be such a government priority, but COVID-19 will continue to present greater health risks to the more vulnerable; and a likely need for continued vaccination boosters. Pretending otherwise would be wrong. As Professor William Hang from Harvard says, living with the virus “doesn’t mean doing nothing about it.”

For charities and voluntary groups, returning to near normal should mean prioritising wellbeing. We need to keep our people safe and also support their mental health. It also presents opportunities, where wanted, such as moving to hybrid working.

I’m confident the third sector can get back to near normal operations, but it will be a lot easier with agreed policies and effective risk assessment.

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