Extremely clinically vulnerable people

This page was last updated on 23 June at 20.15

The NHS has advised around 2.2 million people to shield themselves as they are at particularly high-risk if they contract Covid-19. This means them being in self-isolation for 12 weeks.

If you fall into this category you must follow the advice you have been given by the NHS and your healthcare professional(s).

If you are in this group the NHS should have written to you with advice on “shielding” which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.

The government is strongly advising people in this category to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact for a period of at least 12 weeks from the day you receive your letter.

The government announced on 22 June that it will be relaxing the advice given to people who are extremely clinically vulnerable, with changes coming in from 6 July leading to the advice to shield being ‘paused’ from 1 August.

People who are currently shielding will receive letters in the next few days outlining the revised guidance.

The government said it expects employers to be sensible and to work with their shielding employees to help them back to work and to protect them once at work.

What are the changes from 6 July?

According to NHS England you will:

  • no longer need to stay 2 metres away from people you live with
  • be able to meet with one other household if you live alone, or if you are a single-parent living alone with your children – this will be called your ‘support bubble’
  • you can meet up with up to 6 people outside who you do not live with, so long as you maintain the 2 metre social distancing

View the government press release on plans to relax shielding for extremely clinically vulnerable people

What are the changes from 1 August?

From 1 August the advice to shield will be ‘paused’, this means that people who are currently shielding will no longer be required to do so. If you cannot do your job from home, your employer could ask you to return to your workplace.

We know that this will be very worrying for many people who are currently shielding, and many will be nervous and anxious about returning to work if they cannot work from home. We expect employers to review their general risk assessments and to also consider individual risk assessments for anyone who is asked to return to the workplace.

The individual risk assessment should consider your own individual health and how your employer can ensure that your workplace will remain ‘Covid-Safe’.

The government called on employers to be reasonable and to be supportive and we expect employers to engage early with their workers who are currently shielding.

What will I be paid whilst shielding?

Most employers will take a sensible approach to your situation and we would advise that, as a minimum, you should be considered as being on ‘medical suspension’ which means being off work on full, normal pay.

Local government workers, under the ‘Green Book’ are entitled to be paid as normal if they are required to shield themselves for 12 weeks.

If your contract does not provide for you to receive your normal pay (i.e. local government workers) OR your employer is not reasonable and refuses to pay you your normal pay, then the statutory minimum you must be paid is SSP. However, the government has announced that the entitlement to SSP for people who are currently shielding will end from 1 August.

Find out more about Statutory Sick Pay

Can I be required to work at home whilst shielding?

Yes. If you would otherwise be at work, your employer can require you to work at home (if you can) whilst you are shielding.

What if someone I live with is shielding?

Lots of our members may not fall into the extremely clinically vulnerable group and are not required to shield, but may live with someone who does.

View our advice for people who live with someone who is vulnerable

 

FAQs

  • Bubbles and social distancing

    What about the size of groups and bubbles?

    The purpose of a bubble is to reduce the risk of infection by minimising contact and mixing, and to allow easier identification of contacts. For this to work, groups need to be as consistent and as small as possible. UNISON is concerned that government advice for September states that bubbles can potentially be as large as entire year groups and that staff can move between classes and year groups.

    Our advice is that employers should instead seek to maintain smaller groups, preferably no larger than a normal class in primary and KS3 and half a year group in KS4.

    UNISON is clear that smaller bubbles are best to minimise the risk of an outbreak spreading and so the use of larger bubbles must be rigorously risk-assessed. Employers must set out how they will manage and reduce any resulting increased risk. Please see the joint union checklist for more information.

    How will social distancing work in schools from September when all pupils and staff return?

    The arrangements adopted by schools for minimising contact and maintaining social distancing are vital for staff and pupil safety. Government advice assumes a continuing decrease in the prevalence of COVID-19 into the autumn term but we are concerned that this may not be the case.

    The government guidance is confusing and provides too many caveats (i.e. whole year bubbles, staff working across bubbles) and places too many burdens on schools without providing them with necessary additional resources to reduce risks, for example increased cleaning.

    We are also concerned at the potential increased risk to school staff whose roles mean that social distancing will be extremely difficult, (if not impossible), for example those supporting pupils with medical needs, or carrying out one-to-ones or small-group work. That is why we are calling on schools to carry out role-based risk assessments.

    UNISON and the joint unions have produced a checklist which sets out what employers should demonstrate they have considered in establishing their arrangements for social distancing or minimising contacts and mixing.  Please ensure your school has a copy; f your school does not have a copy of our checklist please contact the branch office and we can send copies to all our members at your school.

    Your school must review, update and consult you on its risk assessment before reopening in September. Your school must involve local UNISON reps, or if you do not have UNISON reps at your school they must involve the branch. Some schools have done this by setting aside several days for staff consultation and training. Please contact the branch office if you are concerned about the safety measures in your school.

  • Cleaning in schools

    What is the government’s guidance on school cleaning?

    The government’s advice on cleaning in a non-health care setting covers educational settings. There is additional advice published by the Department for Education on cleaning the environment, which includes toys and equipment. We expect all our schools in North Yorkshire to follow this guidance as a minimum.

    Who should be cleaning schools?

    Our position is that only those who are employed as cleaners should be cleaning schools. They are the people who are trained and skilled. Of course, in a school setting there will be occasions where other staff are required to clean-up after children or after some activities. They will also be an increased need for surfaces to be wiped-down during the day. However, ‘cleaning’ should only be done by cleaners. This might mean that schools need additional cleaning staff or need to ask cleaning staff to work additional hours. Working additional hours will, in most cases, be voluntary and should be paid.

    What about protection for cleaners?

    Cleaners employed to clean the school should be provided with the correct equipment. This will include Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and appropriate cleaning solutions along with instructions. See our detailed advice.

    What about ‘deep cleaning’?

    Although there is no clear definition of a deep clean it is accepted that a deep clean is more than a standard or regular clean. Only cleaning staff should be asked to carry out a deep clean of a school or particular area within the school. If you are instructed to carry out deep cleaning duties and you are not employed as a cleaner you should make clear to your manager that this is not your role. If your manager continues to insist you must speak to your school’s UNISON rep or contact the branch office straight away.

    For cleaning staff, a risk assessment and training should be conducted and appropriate personal protective (PPE) equipment provided by the employer before any deep cleaning is carried out. Instructions should also be given on the use of any specialist equipment such as steamers for sanitising equipment, fixtures and fittings within the school.

    Cleaning chemicals should conform to the Chemical Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) and be provided by the employer. Staff must never provide their own cleaning materials, solutions or equipment.

    In conjunction with the above, schools should:

    1. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    2. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    3. Notify all staff and any union Health & Safety Reps of what is happening and keep them updated on any developments.

    What should happen in a deep clean situation when there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19?

    In this situation the employer should do the following:

    1. Conduct full risk assessments
    2. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    3. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    4. Provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including appropriate face masks for those responsible for decontaminating the school
    5. Notify all staff and any trade union Health & Safety Reps, and keep them updated on any development.

    See our detailed advice. Also see the government advice on COVID-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

  • Health & Safety, PPE and face coverings

    Should my school be providing PPE?

    The government guidance says most staff in education settings don’t need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) beyond what is required for their normal work and that it is only needed in a small number of specific situations. In their view such cases only include: where a pupil becomes ill with coronavirus symptoms while at school, and if 2 metres cannot be maintained; or where a pupil already has routine intimate care needs that involve the use of PPE. Their advice recommends that schools refer to safe working in education, childcare and children’s social care for more information about infection and PPE.

    We strongly disagree with this guidance. As is always the case with PPE in any situation, the decision as to whether PPE is needed must be made via a risk assessments. Only a risk assessment can determine whether PPE is needed in any given situation. We do not think that the government should make this blanket statement. Schools must ensure that they always have adequate supplies of PPE available. PPE such as disposable gloves, aprons and face masks must be made available following a risk assessment and where it is not possible to implement government guidance on social distancing.

    The PPE required will depend on the nature of your role and should be issued where the risks you are exposed to make it necessary. Any staff who require it must be trained in its use. Please see our PPE guide for more details.

    Can I wear a face covering at work?

    From 1 September, government guidance gives head teachers in secondary schools in England the “discretion” to introduce face coverings in their schools. Additionally, in areas of local lockdown staff and pupils in secondary schools will be required to wear face coverings in corridors and communal spaces.

    Our position remains that staff in any educational setting should be allowed to wear suitable face coverings if they wish to do so. The Health and Safety Executive has stated that employers should support employees who wish to wear face coverings as added protection. It is important that face coverings are used in addition to other protective measures and that wearing them does not lead to the relaxation of social distancing and regular hand washing, etc. These practices should be adhered to at all times.

    Face coverings may provide extra protection and some schools are now providing face coverings for employees especially where 2-metre social distancing cannot be applied. If a risk assessment identifies that face ‘masks’ are needed as PPE the employer must source and provide these and put in place training on correct use.

    We will continue to monitor and review the advice on face coverings. In the meantime if you wish to wear a face covering and your employer is refusing to allow you to, please draw their attention to the HSE advice. If your employer still refuses please contact the branch office straight away.

    Should my school keep open its windows to reduce the risk of infection spreading?

    All evidence to date suggests that ventilation is hugely important in helping reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading (risk decreases outdoors).

    Please see page 5 of the joint union checklist. The section called ‘Ensuring good respiratory hygiene’ sets out the measures your school should be taking in this regard. If your school is not following these measures, please contact your school UNISON rep or contact the branch office.

  • Pay, terms and conditions

    If I have to self-isolate or my school is closed as a result of a local lockdown will I still be paid?

    The overwhelming majority of school members, including in academies, are covered by protections under the NJC ‘Green Book’ terms and conditions. The Green Book is negotiated by UNISON and the other support staff unions and contains the following clause:

    “An employee who is prevented from attending work because of contact with infectious disease shall be entitled to receive normal pay. The period of absence on this account shall not be reckoned against the employee’s entitlements under this scheme”

    This means that if you are employed under Green Book terms and conditions and are required to self-isolate you will continue to receive your normal pay. In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or used as part of any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    Even if you are not covered by Green Book terms and conditions, your employer should observe this agreement during this emergency. If you have issues with your employer, please urgently raise them with your school UNISON rep or contact the branch office for advice and assistance.

    I work for a catering contractor in the school. What will happen to my pay if I have to self-isolate or the school is closed due to a local lockdown?

    We oppose the privatisation of school services such as catering, as the only way to make the savings that the private companies promise your school is by cutting your terms and conditions.

    Private contractors who deliver catering, cleaning, IT services, etc. are still being paid by the school, so contracted staff should be fully paid. In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or be used in any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    UNISON believes that contractors should comply with the same procedures as the school in this emergency, otherwise this could undermine attempts to reduce the spread of virus. We are calling on schools to require contractors to pay full sick pay and the real Living Wage as a minimum (as part of our Clean Schools, Safer Schools campaign). This would help to remove financial barriers to outsourced staff self-isolating in cases of local COVID outbreaks. The importance of these measures cannot be overstated. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that those care homes which offered full contractual sick pay to their staff carried lower risk of infection to their residents. We think this will be the same in schools when all pupils return in September.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your school UNISON rep or contact the branch office for advice and assistance.

    I have been asked to work in a different role, or a different school. Is this reasonable?

    If schools need staff to be redeployed temporarily to other duties, or even other schools, some degree of flexibility will be required BUT schools should seek volunteers first. Additional costs associated with travel should be paid in accordance with whatever policies are in place.

    If staff are asked to temporarily undertake different roles, they must be given suitable training and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Staff who are asked to take on lower-grade roles should continue to be paid at their normal grade, and staff covering higher-grade roles should be paid the higher rate.

    Download our briefing for teaching assistants and cover supervisors

    I am employed on a Term-Time Only contract (TTO), do I have to work during school holidays?

    No. In recent years lots of our schools have reduced the pay of support staff so that they are only paid during term-time. We have always opposed this. One consequence is that those staff no longer have a contractual requirement to be available for work during school holidays. If you are employed on a term-time only contract you can choose whether to work during the holiday. If you do, you should be paid additional hours for this.

    Can I be asked to work during school holidays or on bank holidays?

    Some schools may decide to open for the children of key workers during school holidays and/or on bank holidays. For staff who are paid full-year then you can be asked to work during the holidays (there are different considerations for staff who are employed on teacher’s terms and conditions). Employers should be reasonable and take into account childcare or other genuine cases which would mean you cannot come in to work.

    If you are only paid term-time, then you are unlikely to have a contractual obligation to work during school holidays. If you volunteer to work, you should be paid additional hours.

    I am an agency staff member. Will I still be paid during periods of COVID-related absences/closures period?

    The school should, as a minimum, pay you to the end date of your assignment. In addition many schools have already committed to continue full pay for agency staff in line with directly employed staff during the entire emergency. Agency staff will, alongside other school-employed staff, play a vital role and UNISON is arguing that you should be kept on full pay during this period.

  • Post-holiday quarantine

    Will I be in breach of my contract if the government imposes a 14-day quarantine/self-isolation period whilst I’m away on holiday, resulting in me not being able to return to school at the start of September?

    No. The government guidance for full opening contains the following statement under the ‘staff taking leave’ section:

    “We recognise that school staff have been working extremely hard throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and will be working hard to prepare for all pupils to return from the start of the autumn term. Many staff will want to take a holiday over the summer period, which may involve travelling abroad. The government has set a requirement for people returning from some countries to quarantine for 14 days on their return. The latest guidance on quarantine can be accessed at coronavirus (COVID-19): how to self-isolate when you travel to the UK.

    As would usually be the case, staff will need to be available to work in school from the start of the autumn term. We recommend that school leaders discuss leave arrangements with staff before the end of the summer term to inform planning for the autumn term.

    There is a risk that where staff travel abroad, their return travel arrangements could be disrupted due to factors arising beyond their control in relation to coronavirus (COVID-19), such as the potential for reinstatement of lockdown measures in the place they are visiting.

    Where it is not possible to avoid a member of staff having to quarantine during term time, school leaders should consider if it is possible to temporarily amend working arrangements to enable them to work from home.”

  • Pregnant women

    I am pregnant and worried about returning to work, what are my rights?

    Pregnant women are classed by the government as being “clinically vulnerable”. The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (RCOG) has issued advice which notes that, while pregnant women may not be more likely to become infected by Covid-19, those who contract any respiratory illnesses in the third trimester of pregnancy (ie the 28th week and beyond) can become seriously unwell. It also notes that absolute assurance cannot be given that contracting Covid-19 carries no greater risk to women at an earlier stage of their pregnancy and carries no risk to the unborn baby. Finally, it notes that some pregnant women and new mothers may be at increased risk due to other factors. The government advice says that “we advise employers and pregnant women to follow this [the RCOG] advice”.

    This means you should be working from home wherever possible. Your Head Teacher (or line manager) should already have drawn up a pregnancy risk assessment with you and this should have been regularly updated. By now, this should include reference to Covid-19 and that you are “clinically vulnerable”.

    Go to our specific advice for pregnant workers

    If you cannot work from home, or your Head Teacher has asked you to come back into school you must contact us for advice and support. You must only return to school of strict social distancing can be observed. The Department for Education has said that children cannot socially distance in school, therefore it is difficult to see how you can be brought back into the school environment. In most cases your Head Teacher should:

    • Enable you to work from home, and continue to pay you your normal pay
    • If you cannot work from home you must be deployed to a role that avoids children and means you can maintain strict social distancing at all time
    • If the above options are not possible, you should be placed on maternity suspension and continue to receive your normal pay
  • School catering

    I work in school meals but I have not seen, or been spoken to, regarding a risk assessment. 

    The risk assessment for the return to work is a legal requirement and the school must have plans in place by September. It is a legal requirement that trade union representatives are consulted on the risk assessment. The School Food Plan Alliance have produced a helpful checklist to assist schools in their risk assessment, which your school may find useful along with the wider joint union checklist. If you have not seen a risk assessment for your workplace before you return to work, or you are still unsure about what is expected of you, please contact the branch office straight away.

    I am being asked to change my hours to cover staggered lunch breaks but I have responsibilities outside of work that make this impossible. 

    Many schools are choosing to operate a staggered lunch and/or break service to keep ‘bubbles’ separate. In most cases this is sensible and shows that the school is considering the safety of staff and pupils. However, changing your hours of work is a change to the terms and conditions that you agreed to when you took the job and must not be done without your consent. There should be enough staff working to ensure that a rota can be covered without affecting anyone detrimentally and management should communicate with all staff concerned to find a solution that suits everyone.

    Your manager must discuss the changes with you first and must get your agreement. In most cases a sensible discussion can result in sensible outcomes that suit both employer and employee. If you feel under pressure to change your hours, or are being told you must change your hours, please contact the branch office straight away. We can support you in discussions with your employer and there may be some situations where the law gives you additional rights such as caring for a dependent.

    I work for a catering contractor in the school. What will happen to my pay if I have to self-isolate or the school is closed due to a local lockdown?

    We oppose the privatisation of school services such as catering, as the only way to make the savings that the private companies promise your school is by cutting your terms and conditions.

    Private contractors who deliver catering, cleaning, IT services, etc. are still being paid by the school, so contracted staff should be fully paid. In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or be used in any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    UNISON believes that contractors should comply with the same procedures as the school in this emergency, otherwise this could undermine attempts to reduce the spread of virus. We are calling on schools to require contractors to pay full sick pay and the real Living Wage as a minimum (as part of our Clean Schools, Safer Schools campaign). This would help to remove financial barriers to outsourced staff self-isolating in cases of local COVID outbreaks. The importance of these measures cannot be overstated. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that those care homes which offered full contractual sick pay to their staff carried lower risk of infection to their residents. We think this will be the same in schools when all pupils return in September.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your school UNISON rep or contact the branch office for advice and assistance. 

  • Teaching Assistants, PPA time and Cover Supervison

    Should teaching assistants/learning support assistants be leading classes?

    Throughout the COVID-19 crisis school staff have gone above and beyond to keep schools running and support children and young people. During this time many staff have stretched the boundaries of their job roles to help schools out while vulnerable colleagues were forced to stay away from work or while other colleagues were re-assigned to other areas.

    UNISON has concerns that teaching assistants will be asked to lead full classes and cover full teaching duties. This would not be fair on staff or pupils.

    In July 2020 the DfE issued its guidance for full opening, which has a specific section on school staff:

    “Where support staff capacity is available, schools may consider using this to support catch-up provision or targeted interventions. Teaching assistants may also be deployed to lead groups or cover lessons, under the direction and supervision of a qualified, or nominated, teacher (under the Education (Specified Work) (England) Regulations 2012 for maintained schools and non-maintained special schools and in accordance with the freedoms provided under the funding agreement for academies). Any redeployments should not be at the expense of supporting pupils with SEND. Headteachers should be satisfied that the person has the appropriate skills, expertise and experience to carry out the work, and discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member of staff. This includes ensuring that safe ratios are met, and/or specific training undertaken, for any interventions or care for pupils with complex needs where specific training or specific ratios are required.” 

    A key sentence in the DfE guidance is: ‘…discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member of staff.’ Schools should not impose new roles or duties on staff. We  expect that changes which impact on others should be discussed with all those affected, and that the local UNISON reps should be involved. If there are no school-based reps then schools should discuss any changes with branch officers either directly (if an Academy school) or via NYCC (if a local authority school). Members who are unhappy with proposals or are aware that their school has not talked to the union should contact the branch office straight away or ask their Head Teacher to contact us.

    Our clear position is that only suitably experienced teaching assistants should be asked to lead classes and then only in situations known about in advance, for example where a teacher is working from home due to being in a vulnerable group, and where another teacher is unavailable. Suitably experienced teaching assistants are only those whose job description already includes this occasional responsibility, usually Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs, working at levels 4 and 5 according to the NJC model job profiles), and who are paid at the appropriate grade.

    Where HLTAs are deployed to lead classes, they should be provided with enough time within their contracted hours to plan and prepare, including opportunities to liaise with class teachers. They too should be supported by a teaching assistant. UNISON is clear that HLTAs should not be expected to lead classes on an indefinite basis, although we are also aware of the importance of protecting the integrity of any classes/bubbles as much as possible in current circumstances. Any arrangement for a HLTA to lead a class should be reviewed and agreed with the staff member on at least a fortnightly basis.

    What about cover for teacher PPA time?

    Under normal circumstances, schools are required to put additional staff into their timetable to ensure that teaching continues during PPA time. During the spring/summer lockdown it was expected that small classes/bubbles would be kept intact to restrict movement. In order to maintain PPA time, many schools operated an adjusted timetable, for example closing classrooms to pupils for a day or afternoon a week, using that time for staff to take PPA and for the school to be deep cleaned.

    In many schools September re-opening should see a return to previous practice. Where bubbles/small classes remain, the school must do a risk assessment to ensure that any adjustment to ‘normal’ routine and/or staff moving between classes/bubbles does not increase risks. Some schools are operating an adjusted timetable to maintain smaller bubbles and facilitate PPA time. For example, closing classrooms to pupils for an afternoon a week and using this time for staff to take PPA and for the school to be deep cleaned.

    What about cover supervision?

    Cover supervision should only be for a teacher’s short-term absence from the classroom where the absence was not known about in advance (for example to cover short-term sickness). If small classes/bubbles continue, then ideally the allocated teaching assistant should provide this cover. To undertake cover supervision, TAs should have skills and knowledge of at least level 3 and be paid at the appropriate grade for this level (see the NJC model job profiles). In this situation there is no expectation that active teaching takes place. Rather, pupils should carry out a pre-prepared exercise under supervision. For more information see our factsheet on cover supervision.

    Schools should consider contingency arrangements for appropriate  cover supervision in their planning.

    What should members do if the use of teaching assistants in school is inappropriate?

    As much as UNISON understands the challenging circumstances in which schools are operating, it is not fair to staff or pupils if staff are being deployed inappropriately. If you have any concerns about how teaching assistant are being deployed in your school please contact the branch office straight away.

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