Q&A: Coronavirus risks and returning to work

Workers will have to fill out a form three days in advance declaring no symptoms

I’m going back to work on Monday but how will I know what I should and shouldn’t be doing?

Well that’s up to your employer. From the outset, the Government’s Return to Work Safety Protocol document says all infection control prevention measures – and there will be plenty of them – should be communicated and explained to staff, visitors and contractors. Employers must also have a Covid-19 response plan in place. A number of employees will be appointed to take the lead but how tricky this all proves to be will only become clear from next week.

Indeed Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec, said the biggest challenge is likely to be the scale of the challenge.

But how can I be sure none of my colleagues have the virus?

Well there’s a lot that both employers and employees are expected to do to rule that out. Crucially workers will have to fill out a form three days in advance saying they have no symptoms, have not been told to self-isolate or are waiting on test results.

But I’m  worried because I have an underlying health condition.

Well the good news on this front is that if you are deemed an "at risk or vulnerable" worker who cannot do their job from home then your employer must put preferential supports in place to keep you 2m from others. But the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association (Isme), which represents 3,000 companies, says the need for employers to know personal details about someone's health is problematic and the Data Protection Commissioner should be consulted.


Are they doing anything else to give me some peace of mind?

Temperature checks. Remember those images from other countries where people line up to have their temperatures taken? Well that looks like the future here too and employees “must” consent. Again though, there are some concerns. Isme points to questions around what type of equipment is deemed suitable, who should do it and how expensive they are to buy. What happens if someone refuses? “This just puts employers into an area that they are not [trained] for,” said chief executive Neil McDonnell.

Well that’s all well and good but what if someone develops symptoms while in work?

This must also be planned for, and in some detail according to the Government. Workplaces are told to appoint an appropriate manager for dealing with suspected cases and considerable emphasis has been put on setting up an isolation area behind a closed door. Protocols also recommend additional isolation areas to deal with multiple cases and say employers should arrange transport home or to hospital for medical assessment, avoiding public transport. But employers have understandable concerns. Isme points out that many small businesses don’t have a spare space for isolation, never mind a number of them.

In my job I’m close to people. I’m not too confident things will change.

Well physical distancing is a key aspect of the Government’s plans for people to get back to work but of course there are concerns about how this might work in reality. Ibec has identified this as a challenge and Isme say many small businesses will struggle because of available space. Nevertheless, among a long detailed list of demands on employers, there should be no handshaking, workers should be confined to team units where possible, canteens should be closed or staggered, meetings conduct should be tightly controlled and of course gathering of workers is out.

On second thoughts, I’m just going to work from home. Can I do that?

Well that might depend on who you ask. The Government document says office work "should continue to be carried out at home, where practicable". Employers should develop home-work policy in conjunction with staff and unions. An NUI Galway survey found that 83 per cent of workers expressed interest in continuing to work remotely, so you're not alone. Of those who had never worked remotely, 78 per cent said they would like to for at least some of the time once the crisis is over.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times