As the UK starts to lift all its Covid-19 restrictions, the US and other nations redouble their efforts to impose mandatory rules on vaccines, testing and wearing of masks.
Rules on masks in schools and work-from-home guidance were ditched in England on Jan. 20, and from Jan. 27, Covid-19 passes and rules on masks in public places will be over.
Infection levels in the UK, while falling, are still well above what they were at the height of the peak last winter. However, the statistics suggest that more than 97% of the UK’s population has antibodies, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics. This does not stop the virus infection but reduces the severity of symptoms once it is caught, and hospital admissions have peaked below what was expected at the start of the Omicron wave. This has prompted the government to lift restrictions against Covid-19 in England in favor of speeding up economic recovery.
Meanwhile, Austria’s parliament has approved the European Union’s strictest Covid-19 vaccine mandate, making it compulsory for the country’s residents over the age of 18 to get the jab effective Feb. 1. France and Germany both insist on evidence of full vaccination or a negative test result to access a wide range of public venues. Italy has mandated that everyone over 50 years of age be vaccinated or risk a fine.
In the US, only one of the three vaccine mandates issued on the orders of President Biden in his Path Out of the Pandemic Covid-19 action plan is in effect, despite community transmission remaining high.
On Jan. 13, the US Supreme Court halted implementation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Emergency Temporary Standard applicable to employers with 100 or more employees. The rule, which took effect on Jan. 10, mandated that covered employers require employees to either be vaccinated or tested weekly and wear masks. OSHA announced Jan. 24 that it is formally withdrawing its emergency standard effective Jan. 26.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court found that OSHA did not have the authority to promulgate the ETS. The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act “empowers OSHA to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures.” When announcing the withdrawal of the ETS, OSHA stated it is not withdrawing the ETS as a proposed rule; it is prioritizing its resources to focus on finalizing a permanent Covid-19 Healthcare Standard.
However, the court refused to halt the interim final rule from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services mandating Covid-19 vaccination for healthcare workers at certain CMS-covered facilities (i.e., with no testing option, except for approved accommodations). This is now in force. The court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that this is “perhaps the most basic” function of the CMS “to ensure that the healthcare providers who care for Medicare and Medicaid patients protect their patients’ health and safety.”
The federal government has said it will require all healthcare workers in the 25 states where the policy was stayed pending the court’s review to get at least a first vaccine dose by Jan. 27 and a second dose by Feb. 28. Meanwhile, the CMS issued updated guidance that in the 24 states that legally challenged the requirement, workers must be fully vaccinated by March 15.
The Supreme Court did not review the third vaccine mandate introduced by Executive Order 14042 which required employees of all federal contractors and subcontractors to have been vaccinated by Jan. 4. However, on Dec. 7, 2021, a federal court in Georgia issued a nationwide injunction halting enforcement of this vaccine mandate for federal contractors. Consequently, the federal government has advised that it is not enforcing Executive Order 14042 for any contract performed within the scope of the court’s injunction, which covers the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam.
While the OSHA ETS and federal contractor vaccine mandates have been held up by the legal process, many large businesses introduced their own mandates. According to research from Textkernel, the percentage of jobs advertised in the US that mention a vaccine mandate has increased to 8.4% though the figure reaches as high as 14.6% for public sector jobs. Textkernel’s research also highlighted wide differences by region with relatively high rates of advertised jobs requiring full vaccination in Rhode Island, Washington and the District of Columbia and low rates in Texas, Wyoming and Montana.
Unsurprisingly, technology firms operating in the contingent workforce space have been stepping up to provide solutions for clients to handle the management of vaccine and testing requirements. SIA’s Vaccine Management Solutions report offers preliminary guidance on the technology available to help employers and staffing firms manage vaccine mandates, whether company-established or legislated.
England, and the rest of the UK, is one of the best protected nations with a combination of the immunity built up by vaccination and previous infection. Although this means the UK is ahead of other nations in terms of releasing the measures used to stop the spread of Covid-19, the US is also seeing a slowdown in cases related to the omicron variant.
Despite the optimism this news brings, some scientists feel it may be too soon to celebrate the end of the pandemic phase of Covid-19. So, regardless of the political and legal battle over public health measures, employers may feel safer for some time to come imposing their own rules, subject to any state edicts that prevent this.