The UK Government announced that it would be lifting many of the restrictions that applied from 19 July and entering into what it terms Step 4 of its roadmap.  Part of Step 4 is that the government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can and so employers can start to plan a return to the office. While there are already in place a number of guidance notes for employers on how to provide a Covid safe work environment, these are being amended from 19 July.  So what is the government guidance for employers going forward?

The first point to note is that the revised guide suggests that during this period of high prevalence of the new variant the government expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer.  Any return to the workplace should be discussed with workers, and trade unions to make working arrangements that meet both business and individual needs.   The number of guides has been reduced and so, for example, there is now one guide that covers factories, plants, warehouses, labs, research facilities, offices, contact centres or operation rooms.  It can be found here.

Priority Actions

There are six steps that the government suggests for employers to protect staff and customers:

  • Complete a health and safety risk assessment that includes the risk of Covid-19. Employers should have been doing this to date and so they may want to update their risk assessment in light of the lifting of restrictions, but bearing in mind that the virus is still spreading.
  • Provide adequate ventilation. The advice is that there should be a supply of fresh air to indoor spaces where there are people present. This can be mechanical ventilation.  Employers should identify any poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Increased cleaning regime: This includes increased clearing as well as use of hand sanitisers etc.
  • Turning away people with symptoms. Employees should self-isolate if they, or someone in their household, has symptoms or, if they have been in close contact with someone who has a positive Covid-19 result.  As previously it is an offence for an employer to allow an employee who is required to self-isolate to attend the workplace.
  • Enable people to check in at the workplace. This is more for customers so that they can be contacted by test and trace.  Although this is not a legal requirement, it will support the test and trace regime.  By implication, this means that employers should continue to be aware of which employees are attending in the workplace.
  • Communicate and train. Employers should keep all workers up to date on the safety measures being put in place.

Reducing risk

As the main risk of spreading Covid-19 is through close contact with an infected person, the employer must still take measures to reduce the risk of the virus spreading including: Providing adequate ventilation;  identifying any poorly ventilated areas; taking steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas; and encouraging use of outside space where practical.

Steps should also be taken to reduce the contact between people so this could include reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ or ‘cohorting’ (so each person works with only a few others) and using screens or barriers to separate people from each other, or using back-to-back or side-to-side working, instead of face-to-face .  It is also suggested that the use of face coverings could be encouraged in enclosed or crowded spaces.

Finally, to reduce the risk of the virus spreading through contaminated surfaces, the employer should ensure regular cleaning of surfaces and increased use of hand sanitiser etc.

Another important point made in the guidance is that if the building has been unoccupied for a period during any lockdowns, the employer should read the HSE advice on legionella risks.

Tests and Vaccinations

The guidance indicates that it is still important to put in place measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission even if the workers have received a recent negative test result, had the vaccine. or have natural immunity (based on proof of a positive PCR within the past 180 days).

The guidance also provides no further assistance with regard to managing staff who have been vaccinated and those who have not.  Acas has issued guidance for employers and states that employers should support staff in getting the Covid-19 vaccine once it is offered to them.  However, as there is still a chance that someone might still get or spread Covid-19, even if they have had the vaccine, even once vaccinated the advice is still to follow working safely guidelines.  Obviously, the government has proposed a change in the law for those who work in care homes, in that they will be required to have the vaccine unless they have a medical exemption.  However, this is not due to be introduced until later in 2021.  Employers are encouraged to talk to their staff about the benefits of getting the vaccine.  However, if someone does not want to be vaccinated the employer should listen to their concerns, particularly to avoid any potential discrimination claims.

In terms of introducing a vaccine policy the employer should take advice and also discuss any such policy with staff or trade unions.  Putting in place a blanket policy could lead to discrimination claims and so employers need to weigh up the factors involved.

The government has published its  Covid-Status Certification Review.  In it, it has concluded in the review that it will not mandate the use of the Covid status certification as a condition of entry at the present time.  It will however, be making the NHS Covid pass available so that individuals can demonstrate their Covid status. While essential services are not able to ask for the certificate, other businesses can use the pass at their own discretion to require employees to prove their status.  However, this is subject to their complying with their legal obligations, meaning data protection, equality and employment laws.    Using the NHS Covid pass as a means of allowing employees to return to the office, lessens the discrimination risks as it allows both those who have been vaccinated and those who have been prepared to submit to a test to access the workplace.

It seems that although employees from July 19th are no longer required to work from home, where possible, the government guidance on the means of providing a covid safe working environment have not changed significantly and employers should introduce any requirements to attend the office gradually, bearing in mind the health and safety of their employees.

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