It was announced on the 12th July that planned changes to lockdown restrictions in England will go ahead from the 19th July.
Despite rising cases of COVID-19 there is enough confidence in the vaccination programme for England to move to a much more ‘normal’ state. This will see the fewest curbs being imposed on people’s lives since lockdown restrictions were first introduced in March 2020. But what does this mean for businesses? And what could the possible health and safety and HR implications linked to the return to the office despite the presence of COVID-19 be?
What changes with the 19th July lockdown easing?
- All businesses can reopen. This includes nightclubs which have been shut since March 2020
- Masks will become voluntary. Not a legal requirement as they currently are in some settings. Although people are still likely to be encouraged to make use of them in crowded spaces etc
- There will be no capacity limits in the hospitality industry. And the one metre plus rule will no longer be in place
- There will be no limits on numbers allowed at weddings or funerals
- Large scale events can go ahead with no capacity limits
- The requirement to work from home where possible will no longer be in force
- The rule of 6/two household rule will also be dropped meaning there are no limits on social contact
Will self-isolation rules change?
The need to self-isolate if you have close contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19 will remain for a little longer after the 19th July. If you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as being a close contact of someone with COVID-19 you will need to self-isolate for 10 days.
However, this also looks set to change from the 16th August when those who are double vaccinated or who are under 18 will no longer need to isolate for 10 days after close contact with someone who then tests positive for COVID-19. The isolation requirement for those in this category will be replaced by the advice to obtain a PCR test.
People will continue to need to self-isolate for 10 days if they test positive for COVID-19. As will those who have not received the vaccination or have only had 1 dose after contact with a positive case.
What do these changes mean for businesses?
For many businesses, employees will have been subject to the work from home guidance as part of COVID restrictions. This guidance will be lifted from the 19th July. This means employers are then able to plan the return to the workplace. And it seems that it will be up to employers whether to enable employees to continue to work from home or return to the workplace.
Businesses have also been subject to COVID secure guidance such as the 1 metre plus rule, reducing face to face contact and the use of masks. Once these rules are lifted from the 19th July however, it seems that businesses will take on responsibility for managing workplace safety. Something which has resulted in calls for continued guidance and support from the government for employers to avoid confusion and wide variations in approach.
What are the possible HR and Health and Safety implications linked to lockdown easing?
COVID-19 doesn’t end on the 19th July just because most of the restrictions are lifted. The virus is very much in circulation with infection levels rising. But we are instead moving to a new phase of learning to live with the virus.
The CIPD are advising businesses to make preparations ahead of the 19th July and make plans for how they will manage the return to the workplace (if not already started).
Health and safety
As an employer you are still very much responsible for the health and safety of your employees. COVID-19 remains a risk and danger to employees that needs to be managed despite any changes to government guidance.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, every employer has a duty to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees are protected.
And the CIPD states that under the Employment Rights Act (s.44), employees are further protected if they refuse to return to work because they reasonably believed there was a serious and imminent danger to themselves or others.
As an employer you need to take relevant actions such as:
- carrying out risk assessments
- taking actions to address risks highlighted by your assessment
- listening to employees concerns
- keeping evidence of the measures that you have taken to create a safe working environment.
Not adhering to your responsibilities under Health and Safety law or fulfilling your duty of care to your employees could see many repercussions for your business including the possibility of COVID-19 related personal injury claims.
Employee’s health and wellbeing
Whilst work from home guidance ends on the 19th July, the CIPD are advising that mandating an immediate full time return to the workplace is not advisable.
Some employees may have been working from home full time for well over a year now and such an inflexible approach is unlikely to be supported. Equally employees may have legitimate concerns about returning to the workplace. Especially if they care for someone who is vulnerable, are at higher risk from COVID-19, are not fully vaccinated or are heavily dependent on the use of public transport to get to the workplace.
Employers may find a range of issues arise such as:
- the need to create a flexible working strategy that works for your business and employees
- the issue of vaccination – vaccination is not compulsory and employees may be reluctant to disclose whether they have had the vaccine or not. Straying into medical records and personal data can also be sensitive. As an employer whilst you can encourage and discuss the benefits of vaccination or concerns employees may have, a compulsory vaccination policy is likely to see legal difficulties
- managing refusals to return to the workplace
- managing wellbeing when changing working patterns
There have been some suggestions that we could see as many as 50,000 COVID cases a day in England by the 19th July with this rising further over the summer. And the knock-on impact this could have on the numbers of people self-isolating has been the subject of debate in the media. This could be a real issue that your business will need to deal with – from managing staff shortages, the financial impacts through to supporting staff who are having to isolate.
Further complexities could arise from the 16th August when the need to self-isolate after contact with a positive case is removed for those who have been double vaccinated. How will you incorporate this into your policies, and will you need to take responsibility for ensuring staff adhere to the correct rules for their vaccination status?
Think about your COVID-19 testing policy and procedures in terms of staff safety if you have more people in the workplace whilst cases are rising.
With the 19th July fast approaching, there will be lots of areas to consider as an employer to create a return to work which delivers continued high levels of consideration for health and safety and risk management. A more measured approach to the return to work could be a preferable approach to a big bang on the 19thJuly. Ultimately you want to put yourself in the best position as an employer to keep your employees safe and uphold your duty of care and legal responsibilities.