On 5 July 2021, the Prime Minister outlined Step 4 of England’s roadmap out of lockdown: the final stage of the easing of restrictions, which, on 19 July, will remove the majority of legal restrictions in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidance for individuals and businesses will replace the legal measures.
With the government having now confirmed, on Monday 12 July, that Step 4 will go ahead as planned, how should employers decide to move forward? Whilst many will welcome the final easing of restrictions, there is the potential for employers to face a few headaches. We discuss below the upcoming changes, as well as important factors for companies to consider as both an employer and as a business:
- Social distancing rules: Social distancing will no longer be mandatory, including in workplaces. There will no longer be restrictions on capacity and all businesses will be able to reopen.
- Self-isolation: Self-isolation will remain in place until 16 August 2021 for those who have tested positive and those told to do so by NHS Track and Trace. From that date, individuals who are fully vaccinated, and those under the age of 18, will no longer have to self-isolate if they are identified as having been in close contact with someone testing positive for COVID. Those who need to isolate and cannot work from home will continue to be entitled to the £500 support payment. At the time of writing, we do not yet know if individuals who are required to isolate but do not have a positive COVID test will be entitled to statutory sick pay. Furthermore, fully-vaccinated individuals returning from an amber-list country will no longer have to isolate upon their return.
- Vaccination: COVID status certification is not (yet) required for access to workplaces or other locations. However, the government do recommend that businesses classed as “high-risk” adopt usage of the NHS COVID Pass, such as in places where people will be in close proximity to others with whom they do not regularly come into contact. The government aims to support organisations in doing this as much as they can. Therefore, businesses are able to ask visitors for their COVID status as long as, in doing so, they do not breach any legal obligations (such as those under the Equality Act 2010). It is important to note that the government has said it may make proof of COVID status mandatory for certain venues/organisations, if appropriate measures are not adopted by businesses to prevent the spread of the virus.
- Working from home: The government will scrap its instructions to English businesses for individuals to work from home. Instead, employers will be able to adopt their own policy on where employees work and allow a larger-scale return to workplaces. However, the government both expects and recommends a gradual return of employees to the workplace over the summer.
- Employer guidance:Watch out for updated versions of the government’s “Working Safely Guidance”. Employers should revisit their risk assessments to take into account the updated guidance. Good hygiene practices will still be prudent and the guidance is likely to stress the importance of good ventilation. It is also likely to recommend the use of CO2 monitors to check the quality of ventilation in indoor spaces.
Facemasks will no longer be a legal requirement. In updating risk assessments, employers should consider whether to recommend masks in crowded areas of the workplace. The updated guidance may contain more advice on this.
- Clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) employees: The government paused shielding for CEV employees on 31 March. Since that date, CEV individuals who could not work from home have been advised to attend their workplace, provided it is COVID-secure. CEV employees, and indeed many non-CEV employees, who have been working from home may be nervous about, and reluctant to, return to life without the restrictions we have learned to live with over the last 16 months. Employers should be mindful of such caution and keep an open dialogue with employees in this category.
The Scottish Government and the other devolved administrations will issue separate guidance for their respective jurisdictions. The Scottish Government has published guidance on planning for a phased return to offices once the country moves into level 0 of the Scottish COVID-19 protection levels.
Overall, the easing of restrictions will be a positive but challenging time for most employers. There is a great deal to consider in order to minimise the risk to staff and customers and further business disruption. Businesses in England that have not yet started to plan for the lifting of restrictions should do so without delay.