Keeping Workplaces Safe From July 19th

On July 19th many businesses reopened for the first time in 16 months. It became possible to phase out a working from home approach and start reintroducing a more traditional workplace culture. Colleagues could meet face to face instead of over Zoom, socialise during break times, and physically pass folders and files instead of via email. However the onus is now on businesses to ensure they are keeping workplaces safe as coronavirus restrictions are removed.

A Trickle For Some, A Flood For Others

Although the official work-from-home order is now lifted, the Government has asked employers to stagger office returns throughout the summer. Consequently, not every company has returned to full capacity immediately. For example, Deloitte has increased its office staffing to 50% and expects to have all its workers in offices by September.

Supermarkets are also expecting an increase in footfall. Most supermarket chains are recommending the continued use of face coverings, some are keeping aspects of social distancing (Tesco are keeping their traffic light system to help monitor the flow of customers and avoid overcrowding), and in-store hygiene continues with some still making hand sanitisers available and some supermarkets still using screens between checkout and counter staff and customers.

Some businesses have opted for hybrid working, with staff working from home part of the working week and the office for the rest. Aviva and NatWest have brought staff back to their offices in small numbers or on a flexible arrangement. Acas has published new advice developed in consultation with the government Flexible Working Taskforce aimed at helping employers consider whether hybrid working could be an option for their workplace and how to introduce it.

With many businesses able to reopen with no capacity limits, bars and restaurants are no longer restricted to table service and there is no legal requirement in England for nightclubs to enforce masks or social distancing. However, the government is advising people to wear face masks in crowded inside spaces and masks remain compulsory on public transport in some areas of England.

Currently, the Government is urging nightclubs to use Covid-status certification which asks customers to prove either that they have had both vaccinations at least two weeks prior via the NHS app, have recently tested negative for Covid via a lateral flow test, or have proof of a positive PCR test in the past six months to confirm a level of natural immunity. However, there are plans to allow only double-vaccinated people into nightclubs and other venues with large crowds by the end of September.

Exemption From Self-Isolation

Another development since July 19th that has affected the return to work is the so-called ‘pingdemic’. The NHS Covid-19 app was alerting large numbers of people to self-isolate. Although not a legal requirement, it is expected those pinged will self-isolate for 10 days, causing unanticipated staff shortages and an adverse effect on some services.

As a result, the government released a list of key sectors exempt from self-isolation – including the energy, waste, water, and food production and supply industries. Police, border officers, train and lorry drivers have been added to the list. The government has also announced it will open an initial extra 200 testing sites on July 26th so that daily contact testing can be rolled out to more critical workplaces in England.

Workers are only exempt if their employer has received a letter from the Government specifically listing their name. Such workers can continue going to work as long as they take a coronavirus test every day, and it comes back negative. If the test result is positive for the virus, the worker must immediately self-isolate.

Any employer that believes a worker that has not been listed should be exempt should contact the relevant Government department.

Currently, this system is expected to run until 16 August, when it is anticipated all fully vaccinated people will then be exempt from isolating.

Keeping Workplaces Safe – Advice For Employers

Employers still have a legal duty to ensure they are keeping workplaces safe to manage risks to those affected by their business. This means carrying out health and safety risk assessments, including for the risk of COVID-19, and taking reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified.

Government Working Safely guidance gives a range of mitigations employers should consider. These include:

  • Identifying poorly ventilated areas in the venue and taking steps to improve airflow.
  • Ensuring staff and unwell customers do not attend the workplace or venue.
  • Communicating additional measures put in place to staff and customers.
  • Cleaning surfaces that people touch regularly.

As already mentioned, businesses in higher-risk settings are encouraged to use Covid-status certification as a condition of entry. The Government is also encouraging them to continue displaying QR codes for customers wishing to check in using the NHS COVID-19 app, or to continue collecting customer contact details to support NHS Test and Trace, although this is no longer legally required.

Employees Return To Work

In theory, an employer might insist that an employee returns to their office and treat it as a disciplinary matter if they refuse to do so. However, the Employment Rights Act 1996 entitles employees to stay away from a workplace if they reasonably believe it poses a serious and imminent health and safety risk. The Act also protects the employee if they are dismissed or treated to their detriment.

The Government’s Working Safely guidance states that employers “should give extra consideration” to clinically extremely vulnerable employees. The employer should discuss with them their individual needs and look to support them in taking any additional precautions advised by their clinicians. Employers are encouraged to look at the extra precautions suggested in the CEV guidance to see whether they can incorporate them into workplace plans. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published guidance on protecting vulnerable workers.

It is only one week since England moved into Step 4 of the roadmap to ease Covid-19 restrictions. There is still a long way to go before we can be certain of how businesses will operate in a still-to-be-achieved post-pandemic world, with many developments and adjustments ahead for workplace health and safety. One obvious, effective way to ensure you are keeping workplaces safe is to keep abreast of developments and guidance.

The HSE website has a dedicated page on keeping workplaces safe as coronavirus restrictions are removed. The information is reviewed and updated regularly and aims to provide the latest information on any changes related to workplace safety during the pandemic.

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