From Monday 15 June all staff in the NHS in England will need to wear facemasks at work, according to an announcement by the Secretary of State for Health on 5 June.
In short, unless staff are wearing a higher level of PPE, they will be expected to wear a surgical/medical facemask in all patient and non-patient areas. Visitors will be expected to wear a face covering. However, there has been no further information published since this announcement on how these measures will be implemented.
Facemasks are being introduced to reduce asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 between staff. Current risk assessment and infection control measures should remain in place and be expanded as new services resume.
So, symptomatic staff, and asymptomatic staff contacted by test and trace, should follow the same guidance on self-isolation. Wiping of surfaces, handwashing and social distancing need to remain in place. Employers should undertake risk assessments when services are resumed and consult with local safety reps.
Employer guidance is expected but not yet published, but UNISON has developed some FAQs for branches:
FAQs for branches on facemasks
Is this just for NHS staff in England?
Yes. Branches in the devolved administrations should keep an eye on government and employer announcements.
Who should be wearing facemasks?
This is not clear yet, but it is anticipated this will affect all staff delivering NHS services and will include staff in ‘office based’ roles, hospital, community, primary and urgent care.
Why is this change happening?
Facemasks are being introduced to reduce asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 between staff. Current risk assessment and infection control measures should remain in place and kept under regular review as new services resume.
Is there guidance available?
The NHS is preparing guidance but at the time of writing these have not been published yet. A letter to NHS organisations from NHS England/Improvement confirmed measures to manage outbreaks including that NHS staff are subject to the same test and trace protocols as all other members of the public.
What advice is there on test and trace?
Symptomatic staff, and asymptomatic staff contacted by test and trace, should follow the same guidance on self-isolation as members of the public. NHS staff contacted by the Test and Trace service and advised to self-isolate for 14 days, must do so.
What will happen to the pay for these staff?
The NHS Staff Council subgroup is working on guidance but, in the meantime, branches should continue to ensure NHS staff are accessing Covid-19 special leave regardless of which route the advice to self-isolate comes from.
What other issues should branches consider?
Test and trace and facemask wearing by staff are part of wider infection prevention control (IPC) measures that should already be in place, for example, regular wiping of surfaces, handwashing and social distancing. Employers must undertake risk assessments when services are resumed and consult with local safety reps. Employers need to be vigilant that over reliance on PPE does not make staff or visitors complacent with other IPC measures.
How can this happen safely?
Changes to employer’s safety measures need to be guided by a comprehensive risk assessment.
Issues to consider are:
- Ensuring training and instruction is in place for staff who have not normally needed to wear PPE
- Ensuring the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BME staff is taken into account and individual needs are considered
- Keeping options available for working differently i.e. continue working from home arrangements
- How will social distancing and face covering arrangements be communicated to staff and visitors?
- Who will be the first point of contact and how will staff be briefed on managing conversations with the public?
- How will this affect violence or aggression risk through enforcing these measures?
- Will there be sufficient, suitable PPE and what are the plans for escalation if stock levels become too low?
- Ensuring reporting processes for non-compliance or failures in safe systems of work are known and communicated to all staff.
- Giving clarity around staff who work in offices and/or move around between patient and non-patient areas
What is a ‘COVID-secure workplace’?
This term was mentioned by the Secretary of State for Health and we are waiting for guidance on what this term means. Branches should ask for full details, including the risk assessment, if an employer declares a workplace as ‘COVID-secure’.
What about staff who are deaf or are hearing impaired?
Staff (and patients) who are deaf or are hearing impaired may rely on lip-reading and facial signals to communicate and will be impacted by these changes. Employers and line managers will need to consider how to accommodate their needs safely and with sensitivity.
What impact will these measures have on the supply of surgical face masks?
UNISON continues to raise concerns with supply and quality of PPE as an urgent matter. Increasing the number of people wearing facemasks will put strain on the distribution system so employers need to reassure staff that they have a plan in the event of stock levels being disturbed.
Branches should continue to ensure NHS staff are accessing Covid-19 special leave regardless of which route the advice to self-isolate comes.