Government reforms (1):  Health and Safety – Returning to the office

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What do we already know?

We updated you in our February 2021 Newsletter Coronavirus (Covid-19): Lockdown 3.0 – Government guidance  on the updates to the 14 workplace guides the Government had published to enable employers to operate safely (known as being “COVID secure”).

What’s new?

The Government has again updated its guidance on working safely during the COVID-19 pandemic (available here).  This is in light of the end of the Government’s ending of Covid-19 restrictions from 19 July 2021, including its formal advice to “work from home if you can”.

As a reminder, the workplace guides (‘Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19’) cover a variety of different workplaces, from offices and contact centres to factories and warehouses.  These are now grouped into six sector-specific guides and contain practical steps for businesses.  This is focused around the following six key steps:

  1. Complete a health and safety risk assessment that includes the risk from Covid-19 (this continues to be critical);
  2. Provide adequate ventilation;
  3. Clean more often;
  4. Turn away people with Covid-19 symptoms;
  5. Enable people to check in at your venue; and
  6. Communication and training.

The guidance shifts much of the responsibility for health and safety measures from the Government to individuals and businesses and the overview to the guidance states:

To support businesses through this next phase, the ‘Working Safely’ guidance will continue to provide advice on sensible precautions employers can take to manage risk and support their staff and customersBusinesses still have a legal duty to manage risks to those affected by their business. The way to do this is to carry out a health and safety risk assessment, including the risk of Covid-19, and to take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks you identify.  You should use the guidance to consider the risk within your premises and decide which mitigations are appropriate to adopt”.

Key changes highlighted in the guidance include:

Working from home

The Government expects and recommends a gradual return to the workplace, which employers should discuss with its staff, including its timing and phasing.

Social distancing

As social distancing guidance no longer applies from 19 July 2021, businesses do not strictly need to implement social distancing in their workplace or venue.  Also customers and workers will no longer have to keep apart from people they do not live with.

However, the guidance for offices points out that Covid-19 can still be spread through social contact and recommends that employers should still think about how they can mitigate this risk by reducing the number of people that their employees come into contact with.

Therefore employers should not immediately dispense with all the systems etc. they have put in place to comply with the restrictions. There might usefully be a review of whether a reduced set of restrictions on masks and social distancing might remain appropriate in unventilated or high-traffic areas.

Employees at higher risk from COVID-19

Employers should give extra consideration to people at higher risk and to workers facing mental and physical health difficulties. Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are no longer advised to shield. However, employers should continue to support these workers by discussing with them their individual needs and supporting them in taking any additional precautions advised by their clinicians.

Face coverings

Face coverings are no longer required by law. However, the Government expects and recommends that people continue to wear face coverings in crowded, enclosed spaces. Consider encouraging the use of face coverings by workers (for example through signage) particularly in indoor areas. This is especially important in enclosed and crowded spaces. When deciding whether you will ask workers or customers to wear a face covering, you would need to consider the reasonable adjustments needed for staff and clients with disabilities.  It is likely that a request for employees to continue to wear facemasks would be a reasonable management instruction.

Self-isolation

Where there is a positive case, employers should immediately identify any close workplace contacts and ask them to self-isolate rather than wait for NHS Test and Trace.

Testing

Anyone with symptoms can get a free NHS test. Employees who do not have symptoms of Covid-19 can access testing free of charge at home or at a test site.

There is no specific guidance regarding vaccination.

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