On 22 February 2021, the UK Government published its original "Roadmap out of Lockdown" for England, which was initially due to see a "cautious but irreversible" lifting of all legal limits on social contact by 21 June (if certain strict conditions were met) (the "Roadmap"). Following a delay in the introduction of Step 4, from 19 July the majority of remaining COVID-19 restrictions in England have been lifted, including no longer instructing people to work from home wherever possible. Step 4 has, however, coincided with an increase in the prevalence of the COVID-19 'Delta' variant across the UK, leading to increasing numbers of infections and cases of individuals being required to self-isolate.
New Government guidance for people who work in or run offices and similar indoor environments has been released, but questions remain over what employers and businesses should do from a practical perspective if they wish to both safeguard their employees and encourage a return to the office.
In this note, we consider the current guidance for employers with employees who normally work in offices in England only.
- Update on England's Roadmap
- Current office guidance – what has changed?
- What should businesses and employers do next?
1. Update on England's Roadmap
England's Roadmap out of lockdown was divided into four key steps (made up of five proposed dates). Each step triggered various restrictions being eased (subject to the prevailing data on COVID-19 available at the time). From 19 July 2021, England has entered 'Step 4'. Please see our earlier briefing for further details relating to the Roadmap. Government guidance is available in respect of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately.
The majority of legal restrictions to control COVID-19 have been lifted at Step 4, meaning that the Government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can.
That said, following a surge in the Delta variant, the Government has still made it clear that it expects and recommends a 'gradual return' over the summer to workplaces and that, while social distancing restrictions have been removed and there are no specific limits on the number of people who can meet, individuals are still being encouraged to reduce close contact with those that they do not usually live with and to wear face coverings in crowded areas.
The Government has also made it clear that it 'reserves the right' to reimpose COVID-19 restrictions when necessary, meaning that businesses may well wish to consider proceeding with caution before deciding to remove all workplace protective measures.
It should also be noted that as part of Step 4, several key restrictions relevant to employers remain in place including ensuring that individuals isolate when they test positive, are symptomatic or are contacted by NHS Test and Trace - and the need to self-isolate for those in close contact with someone who tests positive (although from 16 August, double jabbed individuals and under 18s will no longer need to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19).
2. Current office guidance – what has changed?
Back in May 2020, the UK Government published its first COVID-19 Recovery Strategy (superseded by the Roadmap) and COVID-19 Secure Guidelines ("Secure Guidelines"). The Secure Guidelines provided information for employers on how to make their workplace 'COVID-secure'. The Offices and Contact Centres guideline, published as part of the Secure Guidelines, was specifically designed to be relevant for people who work in or run offices (or similar indoor environments).
This guidance has now been replaced with 'guidance for people who work in or run offices, factories, plants, warehouses, labs and research facilities and similar indoor environments' (the "Business Guidance"), published on 14 July 2021 (available here). The Business Guidance replaces the previous guidance that was in place for offices and combines a number of the Secure Guidelines for different areas of the economy together.
It remains the case that under the Business Guidance employers must take reasonable steps to make their workplaces COVID-19 secure in order to properly discharge their duty of care to their employees – as outlined previously by us here.
However, the actions that businesses are now required to take in order to protect employees and other members of the public are, strictly speaking, more limited. Outlined below are some of the key measures that remain in the Business Guidance and details of those which have changed:
- Risk Assessment: There is still a requirement to complete a COVID-19 health and safety risk assessment and to keep this updated – considering the measures outlined in the Business Guidance. Given that a significant amount of time has elapsed since many businesses and employers first implemented a COVID-19 specific risk assessment, existing risk assessments may well need a substantial update.
- Adequate Ventilation: It is still being emphasised that providing adequate ventilation is key to limiting the spread of the virus. This can either be natural ventilation or mechanical (such as fans and ducts) or a combination of both.
- Cleaning: Cleaning more frequently still remains a priority, which includes asking members of staff and members of the public to use hand sanitiser to clean their hands regularly.
- Face Coverings: While legal requirements around face coverings have been removed, it is still expected that face coverings will be worn in crowded and enclosed spaces and that businesses should consider the use of face coverings, particularly in indoor areas where they may not come into contact with people they do not normally meet.
- Self-Isolation: Employers and businesses should still turn away people with COVID-19 symptoms and respect requirements to self-isolate.
- Communication: Communicating requirements and training also remain important as does making sure that risk mitigation measures relating to workers who are particularly vulnerable are maintained.
Absent however are specific statements that workplaces should continue to support employees working from home wherever possible, although it is stated that 'the government expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer'.
Equally, references to 2 metres of social distancing have been removed from the Business Guidance, however it is emphasised that COVID-19 can still be spread through social contact and that reviewing layouts, using screens or barriers or encouraging back-to-back or side-to-side working (instead of face-to-face) will remain helpful from a risk mitigation perspective.
3. What should businesses and employers do next?
Given the high prevalence of the COVID-19 Delta variant in the UK currently, which has coincided also with the traditional school summer holidays, many offices are seeing a reduced number of employees wishing to return to the workplace. This has meant that many office based employers have chosen not to significantly alter their current working from home practices in the short-term.
It remains possible that additional restrictions could be reimposed later this summer or in the autumn, and therefore businesses and employers may want to prepare for the worst case scenario of needing to reimpose some of the restrictions they may have had in place previously.
For now, businesses and employers should start by updating their COVID-19 risk assessment to help them better understand what they need to do as part of Step 4 of the Roadmap and continue to keep informed of updated guidance from the Government.