The new “Working Safely” guidance to apply from Step 4 of the Government”s Roadmap on Monday 19 July has been published here. There is a general overview plus six sector-specific guides.

The overview highlights the key point that businesses still have a legal duty to manage risks, in particular to carry out a health and safety risk assessment covering Covid-19 (in consultation with unions or workers) and to take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks. The six sector-specific guides are intended to help an employer assess its individual risk and decide appropriate mitigations. The guidance is to be kept under review and advice will be removed “once it’s safe to do so”.

The main changes for Step 4 are that social distancing no longer needs to be implemented, and the instruction to “work from home if possible” has been removed, although “during this period of high prevalence” the government expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer, in a phased way that should be discussed with workers. It is left to employers to determine what a “gradual return” will look like – no further specifics are given in the guidance. However, Dr Susan Hopkins at Public Health England has advised that, given the rise in cases, over the next four to six weeks those who are able to work effectively from home should do so, with a cautious return to the office when the number of cases starts to decline.

For office workers, the new guidance is available here. The priority actions have been updated as follows:

  • references to required social distancing measures have been removed (although note that later on in the guidance, some of these measures, including the use of screens and face-coverings, are still listed as measures for employers to consider);
  • the need to keep risk assessments up to date is emphasised;
  • greater priority is given to ensuring adequate ventilation, in particular to identifying any poorly ventilated spaces (for example, by using CO2 monitors – see the HSE guidance here) and taking steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas.

More frequent cleaning, compliance with self-isolation rules, and communication and training, all remain key steps. Supporting contact-tracing through use of a QR Code and keeping records is now encouraged rather than a requirement. The same priority actions apply across all six sector specific guidance notes, with minor differences of detail.

The more detailed guidance that follows the priority actions includes new text on how Covid-19 is transmitted and the safety measures appropriate to the different types of transmission (section 1.2) and on ventilation (section 3). The previous version’s detailed recommendations around how to maintain social distancing (staggering times for arrival/departure and use of break rooms, one-way flow systems and floor signage, and minimising indoor meetings, movement, travel, sharing of equipment, use of lifts and canteens etc) have been removed, and the new section on reducing worker contact now only references the use of fixed teams, reviewing layouts, use of screens/barriers, and limiting sharing or increasing cleaning of workstations.

The guidance now emphasises that a suitable and sufficient risk assessment should involve a consideration of the different ways the virus can spread and the risk of each within a particular business, and should then determine appropriate measures to reduce the risk of each type. The guidance divides the measures to consider by type (aerosol or droplet):

  • to reduce aerosol risk: adequate ventilation, identifying and minimising the use of poorly ventilated space, using outside space, and considering reasonable steps to avoid congestion; the much more detailed guidance on ventilation in section 3 stresses the need for mechanical systems to maximise fresh air and flags identification and improvement of poorly ventilated areas as a key priority for risk assessments;
  • to reduce droplet risk: measures to reduce contact where practical, such as ‘fixed teams’, screens/barriers, back-to-back/side-to-side working, and the use of face-coverings in enclosed crowded areas;
  • to reduce risk from contaminated surfaces: advice to clean hands and cleaning of surfaces;
  • ensuring anyone who feels unwell does not attend the workplace.

These measures are similar to those recommended in earlier guidance as steps to take where it was not possible to socially distance, the key difference being that under the previous versions such non-socially distanced activities were only permitted (with these measures in place) if they were essential to the business. The previous recommendation to avoid playing music or broadcasts at a level that makes it hard to have normal conversations has also been dropped, although the new guidance does suggest that employers could encourage the use of outside space for higher risk activity such as exercise or when people are singing or raising their voices. It also points out that employers might identify other measures not included in the guidance.

The recommendation for larger employers to publish their risk assessment results on their website remains, as does the requirement to show workers and visitors that risk assessment and mitigation has been carried out, although the formal Staying Covid-secure notice is no longer mentioned.

In relation to the phased return, the guidance highlights that employers should “remain responsive to workers’ needs, particularly during this period when not every adult will have been offered 2 vaccine doses”, and should adopt practices that help to reduce the risks to individuals in the workplace. The “timing and, where applicable, phasing” of the return should be discussed with workers, and they should be consulted on the health and safety measures put in place to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Employers should give extra consideration to people who are at higher risk (who are no longer advised to shield), discussing their individual needs and supporting them in taking any additional precautions advised by their clinicians; extra consideration should also be given to workers facing mental and physical health difficulties, including mental health and wellbeing support.

The guidance also comments that employers looking longer term at future hybrid working models (including an element of home working) should be discussed with those who might be affected and also with employee representatives.

Another significant change is in relation to face coverings: the previous guidance stated that the government did not expect to see employers relying on face coverings as risk management for the purpose of their health and safety assessments, given that social distancing measures and increased hygiene were considered the best ways of managing risk. With the removal of social distancing rules, there is a tacit acknowledgement in the new guidance that employers may wish to consider whether to require the use of face coverings as part of their risk assessment. Section 7 notes that face coverings are no longer required by law, but suggests that employers should consider encouraging their use, particularly in indoor areas where workers may come into contact with people they do not normally meet and especially if this is in enclosed and crowded spaces. It notes that the duty of reasonable adjustments to disabled workers and clients needs to be taken into account when deciding whether to ask workers or customers to wear a face covering.

There is a new instruction to employers who become aware of a positive case in their workplace to immediately identify any close workplace contacts and ask them to self-isolate – and not to wait for NHS Test and Trace. The employer should also inform the local authority public health team. Free worksite lateral flow testing is due to end on 19 July, but individuals can still access NHS tests at home or at a test site and of course employers could choose to provide testing privately. The guidance also reminds employers that they should continue to take measures to reduce the risk of transmission even if workers have received a recent negative test result, had one or two jabs doses of the vaccine, or have natural immunity (based on proof of a positive PCR within the past 180 days). Local authorities will continue to have the power to place public health restrictions on businesses in cases where a serious and imminent threat to public health is identified.