Easing the lockdown: employment implications


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Since Sunday evening, when Boris Johnson announced his roadmap to ease Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, there have been a number of new developments and a raft of new guidance for employers to absorb.

Our Plan to Rebuild

Step one of 'Our Plan to Rebuild' (the government's detailed explanation of the easing of lockdown restrictions), which starts today entails workers who can't work from home going to work if their workplace is open.  In addition, people in England are advised to wear face-coverings in enclosed spaces such as in shops or on public transport.  Those sectors which are allowed to be open (more detail below) should open.

Step two, which begins no earlier than 1 June involves the phased return of nurseries and primary schools (initially only reception and years 1 and 6), as well as year 10 and 12 children having face to face contact with teachers.  The government wants all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if this is feasible.  Some more businesses will be able to re-open (non-essential retail) and cultural and sporting events will be able to take place behind closed doors for broadcast.

Step three, which starts no earlier than 4 July, will enable more businesses (such as hairdressers and beauty salons, hospitality providers, places of worship and leisure facilities such as cinemas) to open.

Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable (generally those who have received a letter/ text from the NHS/ GP) will be told to continue to shield beyond June.

These steps are all provisional; if insufficient progress is made in tackling the virus then the government's roadmap to recovery may be delayed.  Restrictions may be re-imposed, and possibly, if necessary, in specific geographical areas.

"Covid-19 secure" guidelines

"Covid-19 secure" guidelines were published on Monday to help employers "get their businesses back up and running and workplaces operating as safely as possible".  The guidance covers eight workplace settings which are allowed to be open: construction and other outdoor work; factories, plants and warehouses; lab and research facilities; offices and contact centres; other people's houses (for people working in or delivering to these houses); restaurants offering takeaway and delivery; shops and branches and those involving vehicles (covering lorry drivers, couriers, mobile workers etc).

Five key steps

The practical steps for each sector are focussed round five key points which apply to all businesses currently open, and those who the government currently believes may be in a position to begin a phased reopening from 1 June onwards:

  • Work from home if possible – The onus is on employers to take all reasonable steps to enable their employees to work from home.  Those unable to work from home and whose workplace has not been told to close, should now be returning to work.
  • Carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment – The employer must consult with a health and safety representative chosen by the union, or, if there is no union, a representative chosen by the workers.  The employer cannot decide who the representative will be.  The government states that the guidance "operates within current health and safety employment and equalities legislation" and that the Covid-19 risk assessments should establish what guidelines to put in place.  If possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website and, in the case of businesses with over 50 employees, this is a stated government expectation. Things to consider in implementing a Covid-19 risk assessment include the social distancing and hygiene measures described below.  It will also be imperative for employers to have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to Covid-19.  The recommendations made in the relevant workplace setting guidance should be considered as the employer carries out the risk assessment, together with any advice that has been produced specifically for the employer's sector, for example by trade associations or trade unions.
  • Wherever possible maintain 2 metres social distancing – Workplaces should be redesigned to maintain 2 metre distances between people.  Suggested ways of doing this could be via the staggering of start times, creating one-way walk-throughs, opening more entrances and exits or changing lay-outs in break rooms.
  • Where a 2 metre distance isn't possible manage transmission risk – The government guidance suggests that this could be done by putting barriers in shared spaces, creating workplace shift patterns or fixed teams to minimise the number of people in contact with one another.  Another way could be by ensuring that colleagues face away from each other.
  • Reinforcing cleaning processes – Frequent cleaning is recommended, with particular attention given to high-contact objects such as door handles and computer keyboards.  Handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers should be provided at entry and exit points.

There is a downloadable notice on the government website which employers are asked to display in their workplaces to show their employees, customers and other visitors to the business, that they have complied with the five steps set out in the guidance.

The government has committed to publishing guidance for other sectors that are not currently open, and which fall outside the eight workplace settings mentioned above.  These will be published ahead of these sectors opening to give businesses time to plan.

Extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) will be extended to the end of October.  Furloughed workers across the UK will continue to receive 80% of their salary, up to £2,500.  This came on the same day that statistics were published revealing that the CJRS has protected 7.5 million workers and almost 1 million businesses.

The scheme will continue to run in its current form until the end of July.  From the start of August furloughed workers will be able to return to work part time with employers being asked to pay a percentage towards the salaries of their furloughed staff.   The employer payments "will substitute the contribution the government is currently making".  More detail about the changes to the scheme will be made available by the end of the month.

The government has also committed to exploring ways in which furloughed workers who wish to do additional training or learn new skills are supported during this period.

Points to take away

Employers who are currently operational will have to ensure that the Covid-19 Secure guidelines for their particular sector are being followed.  Those who can work from home should continue to do so, and proper measures should be put in place, via a rigorous risk assessment, to ensure that the health and safety of any staff on site is properly protected.  Social distancing must be put in place and, if this is not possible, any risks should be minimised.  Proper cleaning and hygiene measures must also be implemented.

As always in this constantly evolving situation, employers must be on the lookout for changes to existing guidance, and any new guidance of relevance.  The government has stressed that the three steps it has set out in 'Our Plan to Rebuild' are not set in stone, and will be contingent on the Covid-19 virus remaining under control, so it may well be that things will change again.

In the meantime, the extension of the CJRS will provide some comfort to employers who may otherwise have been imminently contemplating redundancy consultation processes.  It remains to be seen what happens in August when the scheme becomes more "flexible" and when employers will be asked to contribute, but we will let you know the details as soon as we have them.

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