Return to Workplace: UK Government Moves the Goalposts Again

By Joanne Moseley © Irwin Mitchell LLP September 28, 2020
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a telecommuting woman at her laptop with house plants in foreground and background

​In August, the U.K. government told the working public that they should return to their workplaces if they were "COVID secure" and suggested, if they didn't, they might be first in line for layoffs. But in late September, in response to the worrying rise in the spread of the virus, the public was told to work from home, if possible.

Here are five top questions employers have asked about the new approach.

1. Some of our staff have returned to the office. Do we have to send them home to work again?

We don't think so. The government has issued a press release that says: "To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home, they should do so."

This suggests that it's up to businesses to determine their own approach, which is pretty much what most were doing anyway. Businesses can reopen only if it's safe for their staff and customers, which they have to demonstrate by carrying out a full COVID-secure risk assessment and displaying the "Staying COVID-19 Secure in 2020" notice. For example, the guidance relating to offices and contact centers requires businesses to put in place strict cleaning measures, ensure that staff can socially distance and that the building is adequately ventilated.

If you would like some staff to continue to work at your premises, make sure they are happy and it's safe for them to do so and that you have a good reason to support your decision.

The prime minister was asked in Parliament about workers who preferred to work away from their home to support their mental health. He confirmed that they could, although this doesn't appear in the press release or the FAQs: explaining what individuals can and can't do.

2. What about if they use public transport or car share to get to work?

Government guidance on travel was updated. It suggests that people should walk or cycle to their destination if they can and, if that's not possible, to use public transport or drive. Anyone using public transport must wear a face covering and should follow the safer travel guidance for passengers.

The government asks people to avoid sharing a vehicle with anyone outside of their own household or support bubble.

Employers don't have any statutory legal responsibility for an employee's journey to the workplace. Health and safety legislation cover only the risks that employees may be exposed to at work—not the risks they may face while traveling to and from work. However, because the health risks associated with public travel and car sharing are potentially high, we recommend that you factor in travel as part of your health and safety assessments. If you have concerns about employees' safety and they can work from home, they should do so.

3. What do we do about staff who can't work from home?

The press release makes it clear that anyone who can't work from home can remain in the workplace provided it is safe for them to do so. It states, "Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work. The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk."

The "shielding program" ended for most people on Aug. 1.

4. Are there special rules about public-sector employers?

The press release states that: "Public-sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work where necessary." This reflects the government's intention to keep schools and colleges open and to make sure that critical public services aren't affected.

5. Can we have face-to-face meetings with clients?

You can have direct meetings with clients but, only if these are necessary. If they are, you must follow social-distancing rules. The "rule of six" doesn't apply to work groups, but it's not entirely clear whether potential clients would fall within this definition. In any event, you should ask yourself whether you actually need face-to-face contact when remote technology is available and most people have gotten used to it now.

Your risk assessments should cover face-to-face meetings. Therefore, if you decide to go ahead with a meeting in person, make sure your staff understand and follow the rules you have in place to protect them and the person they are meeting.

Joanne Moseley is senior associate solicitor with Irwin Mitchell LLP in Birmingham, U.K. © 2020 Irwin Mitchell LLP. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission of Lexology.

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