Government publishes back to work guidance

The Government has published a raft of guidance on how employers should prepare for return to work.

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The Government has published guidance for employers in England on how we emerge from lockdown, saying that those who cannot work from home should return to work if their workplace is open from Wednesday [13th May].

The guidance – which does not apply to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who are maintaining a tighter lockdown – states that those who can work from home should, but that “all workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open”. It gives as examples workers in food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, scientific research in laboratories “and so on”. It states: “The only exceptions to this are those workplaces such as hospitality and non-essential retail” which will remain closed. A list on its FAQ page states that those which must remain closed are non-essential retail, restaurants, pubs, bars, gyms and leisure centres.

Guidance for employers says that they should carry out Covid-19 risk assessments of workplaces to ensure social distancing is maintained between workers, cleaning processes are reinforced and starts are staggered to lower the number of people who are in the workplace at any one time. Employers have also been urged to create one-way walk-throughs, open more entrances and exits and change seating layouts in break-rooms. The TUC welcomed the guidance as a step forward, but other unions are worried it hands too much power to employers and that there will be pressure on employees to return before proper safety measures are in place.

Other safety measures for office and lab workers include back-to-back working rather than people facing each other, the use of screens, enforcement of fixed team working to reduce contacts, outside meetings and a ban on hot desking. For shop workers, payments should be contactless, changing rooms – if deemed safe to use – should be cleaned between each visitor, cafes should be closed and handling of merchandise should be limited.

In construction, break times, arrival and departure should be staggered, site access restricted and support staff encouraged to work from home. The Government announced on Wednesday that it may allow construction sites to stay open longer so social distancing is easier.

In factories, plants and warehouses, screens and barriers should be used if possible to separate work spaces, production lines should be reviewed to space people apart and packed lunches should be provided where possible. For those who do home deliveries or visits in-person appointments should be avoided. No work should be conducted in any households with Covid-19 symptoms or where individuals are shielding, unless it is to fix an urgent problem. For drivers or couriers, drop-offs should be contactless and toilet breaks may need to be booked in. For those selling takeaway meals, the guidance recommends laminated menus, restrictions on kitchen access, cleaning of delivery vehicles between shifts, on-site washing of uniforms and getting customers to wait in their cars, if possible.

Public transport

The Government says people should continue to avoid public transport “wherever possible” and maintain social distancing, for instance, by staggering journeys or choosing less busy routes. It is also advising that people should aim to wear a face-covering – not a mask – in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others who they do not normally meet. Face coverings are not compulsory, however.

Peter Cheese, chief executive at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, said: “The return to work is a massive undertaking for employers and is likely to prove much harder than the original lockdown as there are so many variables. As the ongoing health threat continues, no employer should be rushing to get their people back to work until they can meet three conditions: is it essential, is it safe and is it mutually agreed with the workforce.

“Even with those measures in place the return to work must still be gradual so that social distancing can be maintained. It is important that organisations can learn what works practically to be able to provide guidance and reassurance before increasing numbers of their people in the workplaces.”

In its 50-page document, Our plan to rebuild: the UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, the Government outlines key challenges ahead, including the need for widespread compliance, the impact of winter flu which could confuse diagnosis, the difficulties in detecting the virus and a lack of full information about the virus.

It outlines the different effects of the coronavirus that it is seeking to manage from the health impact to the economic and social ones, for instance, the effect of missing out on schooling. And it says the guidance is based on considerations of fairness, proportionality and transparency, among other things and is “informed by the science”.

It talks, for instance, about developing smarter social distancing measures through greater local monitoring.

In terms of specific guidance, the document states that those in the clinically extremely vulnerable cohort will continue to be advised to shield themselves at home and to avoid face to face contact “for some time yet” with more support to be announced soon, including on PPE for care workers. Clinically vulnerable people such as pregnant women should continue to take particular care to minimise contact with others outside their households, but do not need to be shielded, says the guidance. Those with COVID-19 symptoms must continue to self isolate.

Other changes outlined in the guidance include:

  • Being able to go out as many times in a day as they like
  • Being able to meet up with one person from outside their household in an outdoor setting, subject to social distancing
  • Being able to drive anywhere, except to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have different rules on going out.

Step Two

The guidance talks about a phased return, with Step Two starting from 1st June. This includes some school return, non-essential retail opening and some behind closed doors sports and cultural fixtures.

As part of Step Two, the Government is considering a range of options to “reduce the most harmful social effects” of lockdown, such as not being able to see family. In particular, it is looking at whether, when and how it can safely change the regulations to allow people to expand their household group to include one other household in the same exclusive group.

Step Three

This is expected to date from 4th July and to include the opening of at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons) hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas).

Employment rights

In an FAQ on common questions related to COVID-19 there are two questions about employment rights. One is for workers scared to go to work. The Government advises that employers and staff discuss and agree working arrangements, that employers make all efforts to enable people to work from home if they can and if they can’t that they take “clear, practical steps to help protect workers and create safe places to work, such as shift working or staggering processes”. To identify the precautions needed to manage risk, employers should discuss the workplace risk assessment with employees to identify the practical ways of managing those risks. If employees are still worried that the employer is not taking sufficient safety measures, for instance, on social distancing they can report this to their local authority or the Health and Safety Executive.

The other question is around whether employees can be fired if they can’t work from home and don’t go to work. The guidance says: “We urge employers to take socially responsible decisions and listen to the concerns of their staff. Employers and employees should come to a pragmatic agreement about their working arrangements.” Employees can contact ACAS about their rights in these situations.

Other guidance published this week covers How to carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment and Cleaning your workplace safely.

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