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Can you still go to work? Government update

25th March 2020

The Prime Minister gave an announcement on the 23rd March setting out further extensions to the restrictions arising as a result of the need to tackle and limit the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Unfortunately, there remains confusion as to exactly who can and cannot go to work, and which businesses are required close, and which can remain open.

In the announcement, the Prime Minister stated that “travelling to and from work [is permitted], but only where it is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.” A little later, the Government released a document entitled “Full guidance on staying at home and away from others.” In that guidance it is stated that “Travelling to and from work [is permitted], but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home. As you can see, this is somewhat different from the previous announcement, and it is differences in the messages given to the public that are causing some confusion.

The Guidance indicates that the work being done does not have to be “necessary” ie does not only cover essential or emergency services, but that it can continue so long as it “absolutely cannot be done from home.”

A subsequent tweet released by the Government further complicated and clouded the advice, suggesting that only key workers should go to work. However, it seems that at present (ie as of today, 24th March 2020) the position is that workers can go to work if that work cannot be done from home, and the work is not in the list of prohibited types of work/sectors. But once at work, they should observe the guidance to remain at least 2 metres from anyone else, and adhere to the other health and safety guidance outlined by the Government in keeping safe during the current crisis.

The Guidance published on the 23rd March states that “These measures must be followed by everyone. Separate advice is available for individuals or households who are isolating, and for the most vulnerable who need to be shielded.”

Turning to the details of this Guidance and a further publication entitled “Guidance: Further business and premises to close”, the Government is now stating that the requirement to close a business is  being extended to “all non-essential retail stores- this will include clothing and electronic stores; hair, beauty and nail salons; and outdoor and indoor markets, excluding food markets.” The extension of the ban also covers libraries, youth clubs, community centres, indoor and outdoor leisure facilities, communal places within parks, places of worship (apart from for funerals attended by immediate family only) hotels, hostels, B&Bs, campsites, caravan parks and boarding houses. In essence, the prohibited work covers the leisure and hospitality sector, but you must keep up to date with the advice from the Government on the restrictions. Outside of the listed sectors, the work can be done at the normal place of work if it is absolutely not possible to do the work from home.

In the publication entitled “Guidance: Further businesses and premises to close” the Government has set out additional clarification on the non-essential businesses and premises that have to shut, listing the exceptions within each category of business- ie making clear which parts of those businesses and which types of retail business are excluded from the restrictions which can therefore continue to operate (egs supermarkets, food shops, petrol stations, newsagents, post offices, market stalls that offer essential retail such as grocery and food, and banks).  

At the end of the Guidance it is made clear that these restrictions “will initially last for three weeks from 23rd March, at which point the Government will look at them again and relax them if the evidence shows this is possible.”

You will therefore have gathered that there is no definite date on which the restrictions will end. Further, that unless your business falls within the lists that it can still operate, and you can still expect workers to attend work if their work cannot be done from home, and that they are not of work due to sickness or self-isolating due to a household member being ill or showing symptoms of coronavirus.

Obviously not all work is suitable for home, and you will need to look very carefully at which roles can be done from home, and how as an employer you can make the roles effective from home. Employers owe a duty of health and safety towards their staff, and that duty still applies if the work is done from home.

If the work cannot be done from home, and has not been included in the list of businesses to shut during the current crisis, then you should do all you can to ensure the staff self-distance, and have appropriate protective equipment (if necessary). 

The formal list of businesses that are currently required to close can be found in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Business Closure) (England) Regulations 2020 SI 327. The Schedules include the lists of the activities that must be closed. It is a criminal offence to breach these Regulations.

It is likely that the Government will extend these restrictions to cover other businesses, but in the meantime the Guidance indicates that you can (subject to compliance with health and safety obligations and the terms of the contract of the staff concerned, require other workers to attend work if they absolutely cannot carry out their work from home.

The situation is very fluid, so it remains vital that you keep a check on the Government advice on a regular and frequent basis, and it is entirely possible that the information given here may shortly be superseded.              

If you need any further advice on any matter raised in this article do not hesitate to contact us at Hallett Employment Law Services Ltd.

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