The 19 July 2021 is a notorious date, regularly referred to as “Freedom Day” and the Government is keen for normal life to resume and for the economy to get back on track. However, the main message in lifting the restrictions also seems to be a significant transfer of responsibility. While there is no longer an order to work from home where possible, there is a strong recommendation that a gradual return over the summer is the preference.
This theme continues with face coverings which, while they are no longer mandatory, the recommendation is to wear them on public transport (it remains mandatory on London Transport) and in other crowded areas of mixing with people you are not usually in contact with.
All this makes it particularly difficult for businesses to navigate, placing a significant responsibility on individual workplaces to set clear guidelines and also manage competing interpretations of the risk within their workplace, which has the potential to be a source of conflict between employees.
Employers also have to remain aware of their Health & Safety obligations and ensure a further risk assessment is carried out as more staff return to their premises.
Key points include:
Planning for a gradual return.
Involve your workforce in this, especially as you have a legal obligation to consult about health and safety matters, and consider whether employee representatives are required or whether trade unions will be involved. Will you allow some working from home to continue? If so, do you require a hybrid working policy? If there are competing requirements from employees, how will you ensure decisions are taken fairly? Will you require a percentage of time to be in the office? If so, how will this be determined? What lessons have been learnt from working from home? What improvements could these lead to?
The requirements for catering businesses to implement table service and distancing between tables have been lifted, but in this industry consider whether your staff or customers would still prefer this and if it is appropriate to maintain?
While masks may not be mandatory, there may be staff whose preference is to continue to wear masks – has this been discussed? A clear plan and guidance for staff to ensure understanding will be beneficial and ensure additional guidance is followed where there is a variant of concern.
Consider the “working safely” guidance
(Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance from Step 4 – Guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)) covering the following key topics:
- Risk – update risk assessments, share results with the workforce and publish on-line (expected for businesses with 50 or more employees)
- Who – Consider how a gradual return will be implemented, identify and protect employees at higher risk, be aware not everyone has received two vaccines or there may be specific adjustments to make.
- Ventilation – consider your space. How well ventilated it is, or can it be improved? Can there be a supply of fresh air? CO2 monitors can assist in identifying areas with poor ventilation;
- Reduce Contact – Can you allocate specific days in the office to certain groups of employees to minimise mixing? Should dividers or screens be used to break up the space? Ensure workstations are individual where possible.
- Reduce risk for customers, visitors and contractors – Review displayed guidance, reconsider entry and exits and ensure training where necessary for employees to explain requirements to visitors.
- Cleaning the workplace – reminders about handwashing and ensure regular high standard cleaning is in place.
- PPE & face coverings – consider whether there are crowded spaces as while no longer a legal requirement, face coverings remain recommended. Be aware that some employees may choose to continue to wear them and ensure this decision is respected by colleagues.
- Workforce management – Consider shift patterns, communication and expectations about returning to the workplace.
- Tests & vaccines – Be aware that it still may be a little while before all staff have had two vaccines and remind them about the option for regular lateral flow tests: Get a free PCR test to check if you have coronavirus (COVID-19) – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Update risk assessments to take account of the changes and re-assess the risks;
Ensure self-isolating workers do not come into work and remind them regularly about the symptoms and importance of regular testing;
Encourage staff and customers to continue to wash their hands regularly and maintain distances where possible;
Ensure regular cleaning of surfaces and fresh air supply;
Consider how unnecessary contact can be reduced;
Although no longer legally required, displaying the QR codes remains encouraged.
Above all, communicate clearly and reasonably with your workforce, some may be more reluctant than others to return to pre-pandemic norms and have differing reasons for this. Ensure the business’ interpretation of the guidance and risk is clear and consistent, meeting any concerns with sensitivity and respect. Employees should be encouraged to look out for each other and support may be necessary for those with additional needs, which could also mean legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.
For tailored advice or guidance, please contact our employment team.