Debbie Sadler, senior associate in the employment team at Blaser Mills Law, discusses what employers need to be aware of in light of the roadmap out of lockdown and how they can facilitate a safe return to work for their employees
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s four-step roadmap for lifting the UK’s COVID-19 restrictions is now firmly underway, with only the final stage yet to be implemented in England. The devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to apply their own rules and regulations in response to their respective situations.
With the Prime Minister having now confirmed that the lifting of restrictions in England will be delayed beyond 21 June 2021, many business owners are wondering what the final route out of lockdown means in terms of welcoming staff back to their usual places of work and what the legacy of the COVID-19 restrictions may be going forward.
Here, we discuss what employers need to be aware of in light of the roadmap, and how they can facilitate a safe return to work for their employees.
Guidance on working from home
The ‘stay at home’ rule ended on 29 March 2021 although the government has continued to encourage people to work from home, and to reduce the number of journeys undertaken, where possible. It was thought that all restrictions would cease from 21 June 2021, though concerns over the emergence of coronavirus mutations have now pushed this date back by four weeks and led to local strategies and guidance being introduced in eight areas most affected by the Delta variant.
It seems likely that the coronavirus will continue to have some impact on our daily lives for some time to come so it is realistic or practical for employers to simply expect employees to return to the office from the date when the final step is implemented.
As always, communication is key in making employees feel valued, sharing expectations and understanding any reasonable concerns employees may have. For some, working from home will have provided a better work-life balance that they will be reluctant to lose; for others they will be desperate to interact with colleagues face-to-face rather than virtually. It’s inevitable that some period of adjustment will be required to allow everyone to familiarise themselves with the new norm and to come to terms with the events of the past months.
Gatherings at work
Many offices have been closed or operating with a skeleton staff during the pandemic in order to comply with Covid-19 measures. Although the lifting of restrictions may make it lawful to simply require all staff to return to work on a given day, this may not be consistent with an employer’s duty to protect the health and safety of its employees. Many employees will have been vaccinated but employers will not necessarily know how many of its workers are protected and no vaccine is 100% effective at presenting disease. Legal risks aside, a work-place outbreak could lead to staff shortages and undermine confidence in the safety of the workplace, potentially leading to grievances and an increase in flexible working applications.
‘COVID secure’ workplaces
So much work has been undertaken to ensure that workplaces are ‘Covid-secure’ and many employers will probably retain some, if not all of the protections implemented to reassure staff and minimise the risk of an outbreak.
COVID-19 risk assessments should be carried out or, as a minimum, reviewed before places of work are reopened. Steps include:
- Identifying what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus.
- Considering who could be at risk.
- Deciding how likely it is that someone could be exposed.
- Acting to remove the activity or situation, or if this is not possible, controlling the risk.
When completing an assessment, employers should talk to workers to explain the measures they are putting in place, provide information on what has been done to minimise risks, and address any concerns that employees might have. Reminding employees of the steps taken in advance of them returning to work may reassure those who are concerned about the return to work.
Some employers have found real benefits to home working and have introduced a formal home working policy. Others are considering operating these policies or a mixture of home and office working. It will be interesting to see how many businesses adopt this way of working going forward.
Addressing vaccine hesitancy
Although the UK vaccination programme has been widely applauded, there are still many people of working age who are yet to be vaccinated. Others are either reluctant or unable to receive the vaccine, or have already decided not to do so.
Understandably, some employers may wish to encourage their employees to get vaccinated to protect themselves and everyone else in the workplace. However, care should be taken not to overstep the mark. Employers can certainly facilitate employees getting vaccinated by, for example, allowing them paid time off to attend an appointment or even providing vaccination facilities in the workplace. However, requiring employees to be vaccinated in order to be offered employment is not generally advised. For example, if an employee chose not to be vaccinated on medical or religious grounds, refusing to employ them could amount to disability or race discrimination
The pandemic and its consequences have restricted our freedoms and impacted on our lives in ways that few of us could ever have expected or anticipated prior to March 2020. It is, therefore, understandable that the final step of the roadmap, and its implications for our daily lives, is eagerly anticipated.
However, the general message from the government seems to be one of continued caution with individuals encouraged to continue taking a sensible approach to social interactions both professionally and personally.
By working safely and sensibly, businesses are much more likely to return, and maintain, some semblance of normality, so it is crucial that employers and employees alike understand their responsibilities for aiding the continued progress of the nation’s roadmap to freedom.
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