With the emergence of the new omicron variant of COVID-19 the UK Government has reintroduced some control measures in England from 30/11/21 including:

  • The mandatory wearing of face coverings in shops and on public transport.
  • The use of face coverings in communal spaces in schools.

This updated guidance brings England in line with Wales and Scotland where the use of face coverings has remained in place.

Employers Liability

Employers will need to update their risk assessments to consider the risk of the omicron variant and in those industries directly affected by the recent changes make sure that the requirement for staff and visitors to wear face coverings is reflected in the new risk assessment.

Employers should also ensure that the staff are provided with training on the new requirements and that the use of face coverings is enforced as appropriate.

Office and Factory Work

The current changes do not affect those working in offices. However, employers must ensure that any risk assessment is up to date and control measures in place remain appropriate and are being enforced. Such control measures may include

  • Ensuring adequate ventilation.
  • Regular cleaning of the work area especially high contact areas.
  • Reinforcing self-isolation guidance and making sure that COVID-19 positive employees are kept out of the workspace.
  • Provision of hand washing / hand sanitising facilities.
  • Ensuring contractors and visitors are following any COVID secure guidance in place.

The control measures above are only some of those recommended by the Government and equally apply to many other workplaces.

Retail & Leisure

Most retailers have maintained guidance for the use of face coverings on a voluntary basis in England but now will need to revert to the mandatory use of the same. Retailers will therefore need to update their risk assessments for staff and visitors to reflect the changes and make sure that all staff are aware of the changes.

Retailers will need to ensure that they do not discriminate against a customer who has a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, meaning that they are unable to wear a face covering as a result of a disability. Any person who is exempt from wearing a face covering in accordance with Government guidance should not be refused entry to a retail premises if they are unable to wear a face covering, remembering that a person does not need to provide proof of an exemption. If a person with a protected characteristic is refused entry to a retail premises for being unable to wear a face covering then they would be able to bring a claim for disability discrimination. Retailers should consider providing updated training to staff following the reintroduction of this control measure.

The Hospitality sector is exempt from the changes on face coverings, but will need to consider current risk assessments in light of the new variant.

Construction

No specific changes are recommended in respect of the construction industry and the present control measures in place should, for now, remain appropriate. Special consideration still needs to be given the use of PPE when required and ensuring that this is provided on an individual basis or properly cleaned between uses if it is to be reused.

As the winter begins to bite employers will need to ensure that employees, contractors and visitors to site have an appropriate rest facilities which remain well ventilated to reduce the risk of exposure together with providing suitable hand washing or sanitising facilities.

Transport & Logistics

Those providing transport services will need to update any risk assessments to include the move back to mandatory face coverings for both staff and customers. As with retail and leisure the revised risk assessment will need to be communicated to staff to ensure that they are aware of the risks and changes.

Health & Social Care

No specific changes are recommended in this area but as we highlighted in our last update employers have a duty to keep abreast of current developments. Care providers may therefore wish to consider reviewing and updating risk assessments for staff and service users.

Care home staff are now required to be fully vaccinated and we are aware this has caused many care providers significant staffing issues where staff are unwilling or unable to have the vaccine which in turn can impact on the quality of care provided. Care providers must ensure where they can that they have sufficient staff resource at all times and need to record where this has been impossible to achieve due to Government requirements. Increased use of agency staffing has become the norm for many. Whilst double vaccination (and boosters) provide significant protection against infection with COVID-19 or severe symptoms following infection, vaccinations cannot be relied on as the sole source of control. The efficacy of the vaccination will vary from person to person and therefore other control measures need to be in place to reduce the risk of infection and monitored for compliance to counter any complacency.

Summary

We are some way from the introduction of the Government’s “Plan B” or even more stringent restrictions however employers ought to review their risk assessments and control measures now to ensure they remain appropriate. It may be in a large proportion of cases that the control measures are still reasonable and no change is required and if this is the case a clear record and the reasoning for the same should be documented. Where changes are recommended or required then these should be clearly recorded and communicated to all employees as soon as possible.