The Government confirmed yesterday that we will be moving to step 4 of its COVID-19 Response Spring 2021 (the “Roadmap”) from 19 July 2021. It also issued an accompanying press release and new guidance documents which will be of interest to employers. We set out the key issues below.
When can employees return to the workplace?
The Government has confirmed that, from 19 July 2021, it is “no longer instructing people to work from home” and that it will “review the current guidance in September”.
From 19 July, it will therefore no longer be a legal requirement to work from home. Whilst employers will be able to legally require employees to come into the workplace, employers will need to carry out a health and safety risk assessment, including the risk of COVID-19, and take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks they identify. The Government’s “Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread from 19 July” guidance (the “Working Safely Guidance”) sets out a range of mitigations employers should consider including:
— Cleaning surfaces that people touch regularly;
— Identifying poorly-ventilated areas in the venue and taking steps to improve air flow;
— Ensuring that staff and customers who are unwell do not attend the workplace or venue; and
— Communicating to staff and customers the measures you have put in place.
The Government confirmed on 5 July 2021 that social distancing and the legal obligation to wear a face covering will end on 19 July. The Working Safely Guidance confirms that the Government “expects and recommends that people wear face coverings in crowded areas such as public transport” and that “you will not need to stay 2 metres apart from people you do not live with”. There will also be no limits on the number of people you can meet. Employers will need to consider what this guidance means for their workplace.
There are, of course, still a number of significant reasons why employers may not yet wish to bring employees back into the workplace and these need to be considered carefully. We are seeing a number of employers implementing new flexible working, hybrid working and/or working from home policies and considering whether to change employees’ terms and conditions with regards to place of work. These are complex issues and we would urge employers to take legal advice before making any changes.
What is the guidance for employees who are clinically extremely vulnerable?
The Government published new guidance yesterday on protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19. Taking effect from 19 July 2021, it confirms that:
— As above, social distancing measures in the workplace will end and it will no longer be necessary to instruct people to work from home;
— Employers still have a legal responsibility to protect employees from risks to their health and safety and should be able to explain the measures they have in place;
— The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is available until 30 September 2021 and employees who are clinically extremely vulnerable may be eligible; and
— Clinically extremely vulnerable employees may be eligible for statutory sick pay if they are sick or incapable of work either due to coronavirus or other health reasons.
Employers will need to be alert to the risk of disability discrimination claims when bringing clinically extremely vulnerable employees back into the workplace.
What is the guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations?
The Government published new guidance for employers yesterday on vaccinations. It sets out the steps employers can take to support the vaccination of their workforce, including:
— Sharing information on the facts around vaccination;
— Showing support for vaccination from senior leadership;
— Engaging expert and community leaders; and
— Being open with employees about what support the business will provide to facilitate workforce vaccination.
This guidance is relatively ‘soft’ and there is nothing in it, for example, that would help employers to insist that employees (even employees in particular high-risk roles) should be vaccinated. The employment law issues relating to Covid-19 vaccinations remain complex and we have discussed them in our earlier update available here. Please get in touch if this is an issue for your business.