On 5 July 2021, with the intention of giving businesses and members of the public more time to prepare, the Prime Minister outlined his proposals for Step 4 of the government’s COVID-19 Roadmap. Step 4 is scheduled to take effect on 19 July 2021, subject to a data review on 12 July 2021. This Step was originally due to happen on 21 June 2021. The proposals have been informed by the government’s reviews into social distancing, COVID-status certification and the Events Research Programme*.
Step 4 of the Roadmap
Step 4 of the Roadmap has always been geared towards removing all legal limits on social contact, including at weddings and other life events. It has also been aimed at permitting the reopening of all remaining closed settings, and removing the capacity restrictions on large events.
Now the government has confirmed the following will take effect from 19 July 2021:
- Social distancing: There will no longer be a requirement to socially distance; it will be entirely voluntary;
- Face coverings: There will no longer be a requirement to wear face coverings, including in shops or on public transport; it will be entirely voluntary;
- Return to workplaces: The guidance will no longer be to work at home where this is possible; individual businesses will now be free to determine when employees should return to workplaces;
- Social restrictions: There will no longer be restrictions on the number of people who can meet socially (marking the end of the rule of 6 inside and 30 outside);
- Hospitality check-ins: There will no longer be a requirement for customers to undertake a Test & Trace check-in before entry (although businesses are encouraged to continue displaying their QR code for customers to check-in if they wish) and table service will no longer be required;
- All businesses will be able to reopen: All remaining closed businesses such as nightclubs will be able to reopen and all capacity limits at sporting, entertainment or business events will be lifted;
- NHS Covid Pass: This will be available as a certification tool for businesses to use on a voluntary basis in line with all relevant legal obligations and guidance. This means there will be no legal requirement for businesses to use it as a condition of entry to any venue. However, the government has indicated this position could be revisited with further consultation if it provides a means of keeping events going and businesses open in the future;
- Self-isolation: Businesses must continue not to require a self-isolating individual to come into work. It will remain a legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive or are told to do so by NHS Test & Trace.
School bubbles and self-isolation
Further information is expected today in relation to the government’s plans for education settings but it is expected that school bubbles will cease with effect from 19 July 2021 and, from the autumn term, students will no longer need to automatically self-isolate by virtue of having been a close contact of a fellow student who has tested positive.
The government has also indicated it will publish further information in due course on how and when the rules on self-isolation will change for fully vaccinated individuals. The intention is to exempt from self-isolation anyone who has been in close contact with a positive case, provided they are doubly vaccinated.
Further information on the continued protection of the UK’s borders is likely to be released later this week. It is expected that later this summer, fully vaccinated individuals arriving from an amber country will not need to self-isolate.
Health & safety risk assessments
Importantly for employers, notwithstanding all the easing of restrictions above, the government has reiterated that businesses still have a legal duty to manage risks in the workplace by carrying out a health and safety risk assessment. Reasonable steps must be taken to mitigate any risks including:
- Regularly cleaning surfaces which people touch;
- Identifying poorly-ventilated areas and taking steps to improve air flow;
- Ensuring that unwell staff and customers do not attend the premises;
- Communicating to staff and customers the measures which have been put in place.
The government has indicated that it will update its Working Safely guidance again to give further examples of sensible precautions employers can take to reduce risks in their workplaces.
In a slight rowing-back of its previous promise that any progress on the easing of restrictions would be irreversible, the government has now stated that it may need to take measures to help manage the virus during periods of higher risk, such as winter. However, as far as possible, it will prioritise strengthened guidance and will seek to avoid imposing restrictions that have significant economic, social and health costs. These would only be imposed as a last resort to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
These latest announcements, while no doubt welcome to many, do require a level of caution, particularly for employers. The government’s proposals appear to shift much of the responsibility for health and safety measures from the government to individuals and businesses. While this is perhaps not unexpected, given the government’s message that it is time to now learn to live with the virus, for employers important decisions will now need to be made on the way forward from here. Comprehensive risk assessments and well-considered communications to staff are likely to be key to ensure health and safety concerns are properly assessed and managed.
COVID-19 Response – Spring 2021 (Roadmap)
*The Event Research Programme took the form or a series of pilots using enhanced testing approaches and other measures to run events with large crowd sizes and reduced social distancing to evaluate the outcomes.