Although it has now been confirmed that the majority of COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted on 19th July 2021 (so called “Freedom Day”), the pandemic is far from over and the Government is advising businesses to proceed with caution.
So, whilst staff may be keen to make the most of their newly found freedoms, many employers are now less than clear on what is expected of them going forward.
First and foremost, employers must not lose sight of the fact that they still owe a duty to safeguard the health and safety of its workforce (and others) and must, therefore, ensure measures are kept in place to protect against COVID-19. This is why we have seen a run of transport providers and large supermarkets advocating the wearing of masks.
The Government has, this week, updated its guidance ‘working safely in the workplace’, which is a good starting point for most small / medium sized employers. As you will see, top of the list is to update risk assessments (and act on them) as a priority. In addition to general workplace risk assessments, there should also be specific assessments for any staff that are clinically vulnerable.
The Health and Safety Executive’s website also has lots of useful guidance in relation to COVID-19 risk assessments for those not already familiar with this process: Risk assessment – Working safely during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (hse.gov.uk)
Top questions from businesses
Whilst the above links are all well and good, many businesses have claimed that the guidance / messaging from the Government are confusing, or at worst contradictory. We’ve been working closely with many clients to help prepare for what many are now calling “cautious Monday” and here are some of the top questions coming through:
- Should staff be coming back to the office?
Although the ‘work from home’ message will be lifted on Monday, the Government recommends and expects a gradual return to the office over the summer. Be sure to ask for feedback from your employees about any potential changes you are making to working arrangements, and understand how it could impact people individually. Also consider whether a change to working hours, or continued use of homeworking, may be useful in reducing exposure and crowded offices. Depending on your business, a phased return is certainly recommended, and staff will need adequate notice of any changes.
- What about social distancing in the office?
Employers should consider this as part of their risk assessment, and depending on circumstances (for example the size and nature of the workplace, and the number of vulnerable staff), may need to continue social distancing in the workplace. An employer with smaller premises may feel social distancing is impossible in the workplace, and therefore other protective measures should be considered.
- Should we continue using face masks?
Again, this has been left to the employer’s discretion. Face masks should not be used as the only measure against COVID-19, but if it is difficult to maintain social distancing in the workplace, or if staff are very apprehensive about exposure to the virus, then employers should consider encouraging the continued use of masks in the workplace for the time being.
As the Government is still advising people to cover their faces (on a voluntary basis) in crowded indoor areas, employers should review their workplace and consider whether staff can maintain safe distance from each other. What about in meetings or in communal areas such as kitchens?
Don’t forget to consult with staff about the use of face masks. If you do identify that face masks are one of the necessary measures to protect employees and visitors you will need to take steps to ensure that masks are provided and that employees are using them appropriately.
Remember to be careful about introducing and enforcing blanket policies requiring employees to wear face coverings, as you could run the risk of unlawfully discriminating against people who have legitimate reasons for not wearing them.
- What about isolation rules?
A person will still need to self-isolate if they test positive for COVID-19. Until 16th August, anyone who comes into close contact with someone who tests positive will need to self-isolate. After that date, under 18s and those who have received a second COVID-19 vaccination (at least 10 days before contact) no longer needs to isolate. Instead they will be advised to take a PCR test as soon as possible.
- Can we require staff to have vaccinations?
The Government has released new guidance for employers on the COVID-19 vaccination which urges employers to encourage vaccination; this includes information and resources to help businesses support staff and promote the vaccination.
However, there is no legal requirement to be vaccinated (subject to requirements in the care sector). Therefore, whilst employers can encourage staff to get vaccinated, insisting on it could risk exposure to claims other than in exceptional cases.
Employers can still continue to offer lateral flow tests. If employers are asking for test results, remember that careful consideration should be given to data protection obligations, and a data protection impact assessment should be put in place.
How can we make it an easy transition?
The ending of mandatory restrictions represents a significant change and employees will undoubtedly be anxious. Effective communication with staff about the workplace return, risk assessments and measures to reduce the spread of the virus will therefore be key. It is also important that businesses engage with people to understand how they feel about the return to the workplace.
What else should we be doing?
To minimise the spread of infection, employers should remind staff about regular and effective handwashing and provide hand sanitiser. You should also review cleaning arrangements, and equipment is wiped regularly with anti-viral cleaner.
Good ventilation can help reduce the risk of spreading the virus so look at how to improve this in your workplace.
This is only intended to be a summary and not specific legal advice. For more information on how to navigate the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in your workplace please speak to a member of our Employment Team.
See the Government’s full guidance on the lifting of restrictions here: Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread from 19 July – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
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