Summer is over, and once again, workers are returning to their makeshift home offices, with employers facing a further uncertain few months ahead over the arrival of Omicron in New Zealand. Yesterday, Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall provided more detail on the Government’s new three-step approach to the Omicron outbreak. In this article, we break down the three phases of the Government’s new approach and how employers can minimise the impact of COVID-19 interruptions over the next few months.
Breaking down the three phases
The first phase includes maintaining the approach of stamping COVID-19 out of the community with intensive contact tracing. Under the second phase, the focus will shift to people who are more at risk, and critical workers. Lastly, the third phase is where health and social services are focused only on those with the highest needs.
New Zealand is currently in the first phase. Here, there are no significant changes to the testing and contact tracing regime. All cases are identified / confirmed via PCR testing, which remains centralised. Cases and contacts continued to be managed by contact tracers, but we start to see a shift towards self-service and monitoring of symptoms.
- Isolate for 14 days.
- Isolate for 10 days after the last exposure event.
- Household contacts of close contacts (secondary contacts) should stay home until the negative day 5 test by close contact.
Phase two is designed to flatten the curve and protect vulnerable communities. We start to see the focus toward identifying those at greater risk. RATs may be used in addition to PCR testing for symptomatic people and close contacts. A positive PCR test is required to confirm a positive RAT result. Isolation periods are reduced and the ‘test to return’ regime is introduced for critical workers.
- Isolate for 10 days.
- Isolate for 7 days after the last exposure event.
Phase three is intended for the situation where there are thousands of daily cases and health care services are under extreme stress. The definition of contacts will change to household and household like contacts only. This will mean the highest risk contacts will need to isolate whereas others will be asked to self-monitor symptoms. Symptomatic household contacts are considered a probable case and a test is not necessary. Due to the high caseload, PCR testing is on priority populations with all other individuals using a RAT for diagnosis. Critical workers continue to use the ‘test to return’ regime. It is important to note that we may not enter this phase.
- Isolate for 10 days.
Household or household like contacts:
- Isolate for 7 days after last exposure event.
Minimising the impact of COVID-19 infections at your workplace or business
Employers are naturally concerned about the interruptions that a large-scale Omicron outbreak may have on their business and workforce. We have identified some ways that employers can plan to ensure that there are minimal interruptions to their business and workers over the next few months:
- Understanding the COVID-19 Protection Framework and what safety requirements are necessary for your business to operate e.g., face coverings, displaying NZ Covid Tracer posters, and checking and verifying the MyVaccinePass.
- Assessing whether the risk of exposure to COVID-19 means that work or roles should be performed by individuals who are fully vaccinated.
- Supporting employees to get their booster shots.
- Reviewing and updating COVID-19 safety measures. These may include, increasing workplace ventilation, updating face covering guidance or introducing a self-screening regime for workers who return to the office. Consider dual rosters or staged start / break times to reduce workers interacting.
- Identifying which workers can work from home and how they can best be supported while working from home to ensure maximum efficiency and support.
- Prioritising which work is most important and recording important processes and knowledge to accommodate where there are interruptions to the workforce.
- Understanding your responsibilities as an employer, including employment law and health and safety law.
Avoiding common pitfalls
Navigating COVID-19 and the challenges of working remotely is difficult. Employers ought to continue to be adaptable and flexible to respond to the near-daily updates under the legal framework and public guidance. In our experience, here are some of the common pitfalls:
- Relying on insufficient or out of date COVID-19 risk assessments.
- Not properly consulting or engaging with workers while performing COVID-19 risk assessments. The Health and Safety at Work Act (and the statutory duty of good faith under the Employment Relations Act) requires employers to engage and communicate with workers about health and safety matters, this includes when completing a COVID-19 risk assessment and any potential safety controls.
- Not properly documenting working arrangements where employees and workers begin more long-term hybrid or remote working arrangements.
- Understanding employer obligations regarding at-home working arrangements such as their legal obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. This may mean evaluating occupational health and safety issues that are specific to working from home in makeshift offices.
- Not looking after workers and employees’ mental health and combatting burnout / fatigue. We are entering a time where workers are looking at another stretch of working remotely. As such, employers may wish to consider what they can do to make sure workers are supported.
Please contact us if you wish to seek specific advice about how the Government’s 26 January update might affect your workplace, how you can help minimise and manage workplace interruptions over the next few months or any other COVID-19 employment-related questions.