15 July, 2021
It has been confirmed this week that England will move to the final stage of easing of Covid restrictions meaning that almost all legal restrictions on social contact are set to end on Monday 19th July. But what does this mean from an employment and health and safety perspective?
The guidance to work from home where possible will change, enabling employers to start planning a safe return to the workplace, if they have not already done so. Face coverings will no longer be legally required and the 1m plus rule will be lifted. Subsequently, employers may review and adapt their Covid policies to account for the change in legislation.
Re-integration into the workplace may be a challenge for some; organisations should ensure that sufficient support is provided to employees who have primarily worked at home throughout the pandemic. This support may be crucial in ensuring staff feel safe and comfortable to return to the workplace.
Some employees have expressed their concerns and scepticism relating to their return to work. The transition to returning to work and directly communicating with colleagues and clients can prove daunting. The recent rise in infection rates and the discovery of new variants has seen many employees self-isolating. As Covid will not be eradicated, employers must adhere to government advice but also can and should take any reasonable precautions which will suit their individual workplace and workforce.
It may be useful for employers to provide information to employees based on the new government guidance, to reassure staff and to consult with the employee and/or trade union representatives or the individual employees regarding the return to the workplace. Employers may also consider a phased return to work, should this assist employees in performing their role to a quality standard.
Employers should also remain mindful of their continued obligation to take reasonable steps to safeguard the health and safety of their employees and others. Just because a safety measure is no longer legally obligatory does not mean that it need not, or should not, be taken. Each workplace will have a different approach, but many businesses will find that continuance of certain measures will be necessary to protect the workforce, particularly during the transitional period when staff begin to return to work but nerves remain unsettled. It is important to bear in mind that the requirement to protect employees extends to their mental as well as physical health and the threat of illness, or passing of illness to a vulnerable loved one, maybe an unnecessary stressor for some employees that could be easily mitigated.
Employers are under a legal requirement to regularly revisit their risk assessments, so a return to work post-pandemic is a good time to re-assess whether existing and new risks are properly catered for, or whether additional measures should be taken. We encourage employers to offer employees the opportunity to feedback on their views on any changes as a result of the latest government guidance and to engage directly with them when completing risk assessments. Employers should talk to their employees and their representatives to explain the measures they are taking, and to gain vital intelligence on how the measures will work at the coal face. It is vital that employers and employees maintain an ongoing dialogue if a common solution is to be reached.
It is likely that employers will see an increase in requests for flexible working by employees who wish to remain as homeworkers and/or have adapted and become accustomed to working in a different and more flexible way. Whilst these requests can be refused on certain business grounds, many have proven their ability to work remotely and there have been huge technical advances through Covid. Provided staff are able to fulfil their duties from home, it may be reasonable to expect that employers will seek to be flexible, therefore employees may wish to adopt a hybrid option to work from both home and in the workplace
Practical tips for employers:
If you have any questions relating to this topic, please do get in touch with Amy Stokes in our Employment team at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0333 207 1157 or with David Mayor in our Heath and Safety team at email@example.com or on 01254 222416. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.