Canadian Underwriter

What to tell commercial clients about the Delta variant

October 10, 2021   by Greg Meckbach, Associate Editor

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Mandating proof of vaccination and continuing to enforce existing COVID-19 protocols are key to mitigating your commercial clients’ risk from the Delta variant.

“Many employers are continuing to push back their return to the office, and especially when the Delta variant popped up,” said David Barry, national director of casualty risk control at Willis Towers Watson, the world’s third largest commercial P&C brokerage.

“I think people just keep moving the [COVID-19] finish line and they feel more comfortable about being able to continue business operations working in this remote capacity,” said Barry, who works out of Chicago and advises commercial clients in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Data from Britain, India, France, China, and Ontario all suggest the Delta variant of COVID-19 can be up to 79% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, Public Health Ontario said in September.
As of July 3, about 76% of Ontarians who were infected with COVID-19 at the time had the Delta variant, the provincial government said.

“I think the Delta variant has made it more frustrating for governments and businesses to do what they hope to do this fall, which is to get back to a sense of normalcy,” said KPMG Canada partner Norm Keith.

The rise in the Delta variant has probably been one factor in a general consensus that employers should have a policy on mandatory proof of vaccine, said Keith, a lawyer whose areas of expertise include labour, occupational health and safety and COVID-19 vaccine policies.

“The Delta variant may be more transmissible and therefore prior mitigation strategies are probably less effective, but I don’t know that that’s been measured reliably,” he told Canadian Underwriter in late August, shortly after the release of a KPMG Canada poll.

That poll was of 505 Canadian small- and medium-sized business owners and decision-makers. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents are making or plan to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for their employees. A large majority (84%) said vaccines are key to avoiding another lockdown and should be mandatory.

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic March 11, 2020 by the World Health Organization.

The science continues to evolve and some of the recommendations — from authorities like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — are changing, Barry said in an interview.

“But what we have come to find out is — whether it’s the Delta variant or the original coronavirus variant — a lot of the strategies you would employ to keep people safe are still the same and are still valid,” he said. “We just need to continue to educate folks on the importance of hygiene, of masking, of social distancing, and helping employers redesign the workspaces.”

With the ongoing pandemic, risk managers need to think about a lot of “little things,” Barry suggested.

“If you want to employ social distancing and everybody reports to the office at 8 a.m, that’s a problem because everybody’s coming in at the same time,” Barry warned.

“Before the pandemic, the big craze was open offices and team environments. At Willis, we went to no assigned desks. Everybody just kind of picked a place and you kind of worked with a team. Well, that doesn’t fit well with social distancing and other things that would go during a pandemic. So, it forced us to really re-think that and look at different strategies, whether it’s allowing people to work at home or modifying schedules.”

Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo, said the Delta variant has taken a bigger toll on the job market than many had feared. As quoted by The Associated Press, she said, “It’s going to take workers longer to come back to the labour market than we expected.’’

The answer, especially with the Delta variant, is vaccination, KPMG Canada’s Keith told Canadian Underwriter.

“Up until the last number of weeks or maybe a month or so, there has not been sufficient supply to actually even consider a mandatory proof of vaccine policy as an equitable policy, even though it’s a safe policy for employers,” he said.

“The real interesting thing… is how many different sectors — financial, entertainment, sports venues, retail — have really gotten into a growing wave of commitment to say, ‘Look, even if there might be some challenges on the employment law front, we still think the best way to go forward and hopefully beyond a pandemic is a mandatory proof of vaccine policy,’” Keith said.

The challenges in employment law include confidentiality of medical records, though “that has never really been a dominant concern in employment law,” he said.

“The primary concerns are really the dignity or the ‘You can’t force me’ attitude towards a vaccine or some other measures, versus safety. I don’t know if other employment lawyers’ views have changed. Mine has been consistent. If [mandatory proof of vaccine] is provably and demonstrably the best approach, and the highest standard that an employer can achieve to protect workers, then that’s probably the one that is most defensible in law. Occupational health and safety law in Ontario, and every jurisdiction across Canada, places a very high obligation on employers to keep workers safe.”