Freedom Day is coming… what employers need to know
Following a four-week delay on 21 June, so called ‘Freedom Day’ is almost here – exactly 480 days after England’s first lockdown measures were introduced. On Monday 19 July 2021, all remaining legal coronavirus restrictions in England are set to be lifted. However, with the Delta variant of the virus currently raging through the UK and Europe and the vaccine programme as yet incomplete, many employees are likely wondering about the return to work, their safety and the restrictions (if any) their business will be operating under.
What restrictions will be lifted?
All remaining restrictions, including those relating to social distancing, face coverings, home working and the number of people permitted to attend events, will be lifted on Monday, meaning the onus is now on employers to take responsibility for their employees’ safety. Each individual business will have the freedom to choose the level of restrictions they will adopt from this point forwards.
What does this mean for home working?
Firstly, it will no longer be necessary to work from home even if employees are able to do so. However, this is highly unlikely to mean a mass return to the office this summer. Surveys have consistently shown that most UK businesses plan to adopt at least some level of hybrid working going forwards, with almost all of the 50 large employers surveyed by the BBC in May stating that they would be embracing a mix of home and office working, while the majority of the remaining firms said they were keeping the idea under review.
Even so, employers will be able to require that their staff attend the workplace now that government guidance has been dropped, if it is reasonable for them to do so. However, they still have a legal obligation to protect their workers from the risk of injury or illness through the application of appropriate safety measures.
To this end, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published guidance stating that employers should still be reviewing and updating their risk assessments and controlling for risks even after restrictions are lifted, including:
- Adequate ventilation
- Sufficient cleaning
- Good hand hygiene
Other measures used by employers during the pandemic, including staggered start and end times and workplace testing, are also suggested as ongoing methods of managing coronavirus-related risks.
So, can I make my staff come back to work?
Employees who are clinically vulnerable to the virus or have a disability may be particularly concerned about going back into their place of work, especially if it is a busy and/or public environment. Although shielding advice was discontinued in April 2021, HSE has nonetheless introduced further guidance for employers relating to the protection of workers in higher-risk groups. It suggests that they:
- Emphasise the importance of individual and wider workforce engagement, buy-in and cooperation to ensure controls and applied stringently
- Have individual discussions with employees around their particular concerns
- Discuss the risk management measures they have put in place to minimise transmission to keep vulnerable workers, and others, safe
- Explain the controls they will put/already have in place to protect vulnerable and other workers.
As this advice demonstrates, one of the most important things to do going forwards is to make decisions in consultation with staff, rather than making unilateral changes that may make employees feel like their safety is not being taken into account.
Employees with disabilities are also protected by the Equality Act 2010, with employers legally obliged to make reasonable accommodations to enable them to carry out their job, which may include home working arrangements.
Sound legal advice for employees and employers
Despite the end of restrictions on Monday, it is clear employers remain responsible for their employees’ health and safety. As such, retaining certain restrictions within your business, such as the wearing of face coverings, good ventilation and enhanced hygiene practices, will all enable employers to comply with their legal responsibilities.
The UK has seen a significant increase in grievances, constructive unfair dismissal, whistleblowing and even discrimination claims as the pandemic has continued to impact businesses and their staff. As a result, legal advice is paramount during this period of extreme change to ensure that you continue to carry out your legal duties and don’t leave yourself open to potentially expensive legal action. For sound advice, get in touch with Ahmet Ozcan on 0203 871 9254 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.