The Government has now published its guidance on the next stage of the lifting of lockdown. It is broadly broken down into 6 guides;
- Constructive and other outdoor work
- Events and attractions
- Hotels and guest accommodation
- Offices, factories and labs
- Restaurants, pubs, bars, nightclubs and takeaway services
- Shops, branches and close contact services.
The full guidance can be found here and it is vital that you read the full guidance and seek advice on any aspects you are unsure of. Although a number of the recommendations are reasonably common sensical, there are some which could cause employers some significant difficulties.
Although each of the 6 sets of guidance are slightly different there are some key themes which run through them all;
- You must have a comprehensive COVID risk assessment in place. Consideration must be given to those with disabilities and how the measures you introduce following your risk assessment may impact them. This risk assessment should then be shared with all staff and larger businesses are expected to publish their risk assessments online. Most employers will have undertaken their risk assessment already but it should be updated in light of the changes in the rule from 19 July.
- Ensure that your workplace is adequately ventilated. This can be by way of opening doors and windows or through fans and air-conditioning units. The government recommends using a CO2 monitor to identify those areas of your premises that are poorly ventilated so that measures can be taken (for example limiting the number of people in a poorly ventilated area or the time those people spend there). These monitors can be purchased from around £30 upwards although it is quite likely that prices will go up as businesses rush to purchase one and demand outstrips capacity.
- Additional cleaning should be undertaken and hand sanitiser should be provided.
- Turn away people with COVID symptoms. Staff should be asked to self-isolate if they or someone else in their household has a persistent cough, a high temperature or has lost their sense of taste or smell. This also applies to customers, although how you are supposed to manage this with customers is less clear. Those who have been told to self-isolate by NHS track and trace cannot come to work, and it remains an offence to permit this.
- Enable people to check in at your premises for NHS Test and Trace. You no longer need to collect their details manually but should still allow use of the NHS QR code poster (although you do not need to turn people away who refuse).
- Encourage the use of face masks for staff and customers in enclosed and crowded spaces.
- Reduce the interaction between people within the office, this could include cohorting, using screens or barriers between desks/workspaces, using back-to-back or side-to-side working etc. rather than face-to-face. Workspaces should be assigned to only one person if possible.
- Staff are no longer being encouraged to work from home but employers should implement a gradual return to work. Unfortunately what is considered gradual is not clear, but presumably a phased return of 2 or 3 days per week initially (for full time staff) increasing over the course of the summer back to full time hours.
- Risk assess what you would do if there was an outbreak of COVID within your workforce. Many businesses will have done this already but also consider how would you continue operating if 25%+ of your workforce was forced to self-isolate. What can you do to mitigate any risks to your business which arise?
- Consider using the NHS COVID Pass as a method of COVID-status certification. This is mainly for those in the hospitality industry, however significant issues remains whilst certain groups of people, particularly the young, have not had the opportunity to receive 2 doses of the vaccine. The government guidance confirms that you remain responsible for ensuring that the COVID protection measures you take are not discriminatory which poses significant challenges.
- Risk assess your staff and in particular any that are higher risk, for example due to medical conditions or simply because they have not had the chance to receive both vaccinations. Again however you must consider whether any measures you take are discriminatory against those with any particular protected characteristic.
- It is recommended that you take extra care with the mental health and wellbeing of your staff, including putting in place a hotline they can contact if they are nervous about returning. This could be particularly relevant to those who have been out of work for some time, for example on furlough leave or working from home. This recommendation is likely to be problematic for businesses as although external hotlines for counselling of this type does exist, now that all businesses are recommended to implement one, demand is likely to outstrip capacity. You may wish to set up your own business’ hotline, for example using qualified mental health first aiders (if you have them), HR or another member of staff (perhaps a ‘mental health/return to work champion’) who is given specific responsibility for helping everyone to return and supporting them through it.
There are other elements within the guidance which are business/sector specific and you should read those relevant to you. This guidance is likely to be updated regularly as things progress and it will be your responsibility to keep on top of the changes. We will endeavour to keep you updated as and when things change so please do come back here for updates.
It is important also to get in touch with your insurers to ensure that they are content with your risk assessments and the measures you are putting in place. Although the insurer will likely decline to give a firm view that the assessments and measures are sufficient, keeping them updated and showing you are taking affirmative steps will help should a claim be brought against you.
Finally, communication is key, you need to keep your staff up to date with what you are doing and the risk mitigation steps you have taken. Trade unions and employee groups are already threatening claims against employers who compel employees to return and those that do not take the steps the unions consider required. It is vital therefore that you maintain a positive dialogue with your staff and ensure that they are comfortable with your plans.
This is an extremely challenging time for all businesses and the guidance provided is in some respects helpful but less so in others.
For more information and to find out how we can help you, please contact us on 0345 646 0406 or fill in our online enquiry form and a member of our Team will be in touch.