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19 July, 2021

Covid, what next as an employer

This week we see the government’s next last stage of restrictions lifting, which have been protecting the country during the Coronavirus pandemic.

On the 22nd of February 2021, the 4-Step Road Map of restriction easing was announced by government, providing a route back to a more normal way of life.

The guidance from Step 4 - which came into force on Monday (19th July) - includes the lifting of the legal requirement to wear masks and to keep social distance from each other, that all businesses can now open, and the government are no longer instructing people to work from home.

Like many others, Route 1 has spent numerous hours trying to understand what this means as an employer - as well as how it will impact on both our candidates and clients, so we thought we would share our findings with you.

In our research, we found concerns about returning increased commuter traffic, the fear of potential friction between employers, staff, and customers, as well as the legal liability of removing safeguards and then seeing a surge in case amongst workers.

It is however commonly thought unlikely that the ending of the restrictions will bring about a suddenly change to working practises.

The Financial Times said “employers, trade unions and some ministers said the expected change on July 19 would not unleash any immediate dramatic shift in commuter patterns, and that more homeworking by office workers would be a lasting legacy of the coronavirus crisis.”

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD organisation for HR professionals warns that “Freedom day shouldn’t signal a mass return to workplaces, but it could signal the start of greater freedom and flexibility in how, when and where people work,”.

Tony Danker, CBI directory-general was reported to having said that is now critical to “build customer and employee confidence in living with the virus.”

Although Mike Cherry, the national chairman of the Federation of Small businesses has said “After enforcing restrictions for so long, the government must not simply withdraw and allow a free-for-all”.

As it stands Government has no plans to introduce new labour laws: for example, the right for a worker to refuse to come into the office when masks and social distancing are no longer company policy.

Hang on there’s more …

The measures in England go further on 16th August, with anyone who have been twice vaccinated and those under 18 years of age, will no longer be required to self-isolate if a close contact tests positive. They will however be required to take a PCR test as soon as possible to make sure they are not infected.

Anyone who tests positive or develop symptoms will need to self-isolate, regardless of their vaccination status.

But importantly this means that employers do not need to lose all their staff to isolation if an employee contracts Covid … or if someone connected with the school where your employee’s child attends, bursts the bubble.

It is understood that regular testing is expected to replace the restrictions.

The UK Government have introduced several public health measures to support reducing transmission, however these are not being enforced by HSE -

• Vaccinations,

• workplace testing,

• testing, tracking tracing,

• face covering,

• mass asymptomatic testing in education settings.

Businesses still have a legal duty to manage risks to those affected.

There are 14 guides to cover a range of different types of workplaces on the Gov.uk website; to keep people in and around your business safe, you may need to use more than one of these guides.

There is also advice on sensible precautions that employers can take to manage risk and support their staff & customers provided in the HSE’s Working Safely guidance - www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/index.htm

In the long term, it is expected that there will be fewer precautions to take care of, however the HSE advises that employers must still control the risk, and review and update risk assessments.

Employers have long been required to carry out health & safety risk assessments - which recently have included the risk of Covid-19 - and to take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified.

The following workplace controls remain unchanged -

• adequate ventilation

• sufficient cleaning

• good hand hygiene

HSE recommends that employers can continue to reduce the risk of transmission, by limiting the number of people workers encounter, for example staggering work start/finish times, as well as breaks.

It is essential that you continue to consult your workforce on health and safety matters – not just those relating to Covid. The HSE provides a 'talking to your workers' document that gives you example questions which you might like to use when talking to your employees, helping them to understand the risks and contribute to decisions.

On top of this information, ACAS’s website has advice available for employers and employees on the following topics -

• working safely

• self-isolation & sick pay

• furlough & pay.

• holiday leave

• Disciplinary & Grievance procedures

• Getting the vaccine for work

• testing for covid 19

• mental health

• long covid

• working from home

• Redundancy

• training for employers

• lay off & short time working.

• hybrid working

We must however remember that we write this as a business based in England, however, as we place staff and deal with companies across the whole of the UK, we are mindful that there are different approaches & timescales in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Please make sure the measures you implement as part of your risk assessment considers the public health regulations and guidance for the nation you are working in.

The safety of our candidates, clients and employees remains paramount for Route 1 and our door is always open for you if you wish to discuss the working conditions and regulations of staff.