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Employment Law Services Ltd

Dealing with a return to work and keeping staff safe from Coronavirus

29th June 2020
It has been roughly 3 months since the UK went into a “lockdown” due to the coronavirus. It is estimated that the Furlough scheme is covering the pay of nearly one quarter of the UK’s workforce. The take-up of the scheme has been higher than the Government initially anticipated. The Government claims to have paid some £8 Billion under the scheme so far, with an average pay-out of £1,269.

The furlough scheme may have been designed to convince employers not to make staff redundant, and keep them on a “stand-by” mode. But in the meantime, the bills keep coming in, even if the staff are not. A huge number of employers depend on people coming into their site, be that staff at a factory, or staff in a shop, restaurant, bar, hairdressers etc. Without that flow of people and business, there is little doubt that many businesses will struggle to survive, even if the wage costs are largely covered by the furlough scheme for a few months. 

The Bank of England is also now predicting that the UK is facing the deepest economic turndown since 1706, and this itself is based on a model assuming that the social distancing measures are gradually eased between June and September this year. The mainstream media remains full of stories on or relating to the coronavirus, including the daily figures on deaths related to COVID -19 (although it must be said that it is unclear as to how many people in the figures died “of” or “with” the virus).

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak expressed caution as to how long the furlough scheme can continue, indicating that the costs of the scheme are not sustainable, and has stated that he is working on ways of winding down the scheme and easing people back into work in a measured way.

For whatever it is worth, it is our observation that there are certainly more vehicles on the road now than there were a couple of weeks ago, suggesting that people are slowly but surely returning to work. We also have some business clients reporting that they are returning a skeleton staff to work where previously no work was being done. This appears to indicate that businesses are reaching the point that they are having to face the decision of either returning to work (or at least in part), or consider the real possibility that their businesses will be unable to recover if the total cessation of work continues any longer.    

However, a large number of people have concerns on any possible return to work in the foreseeable, let alone near, future.

The Government is proposing to consult over measures to enable the return to work. On the 3rd May, Michael Gove MP announced that the Government was in consultation with employers and trade unions. According to a report in Personnel Today (Government consults on draft return to work guidelines - 4th May 2020) the proposals include additional hygiene procedures, physical screens, and the use of protective equipment if social distancing of two metres between workers is not possible. The Prime Minister announced the first steps in the roadmap for easing the lockdown on Sunday 10th May 2020. Michael Gove referred to a “phased return” in his briefing on the 4th May.

Subsequently, the Government has published sector focused guidelines on enabling a safe return to work for workers in England.

It is likely that in order to maintain health and safety, the plans for most employers to resume work will include such measures as staggering shift times, maximising home-working, etc. It does look likely that some businesses, such as restuarants, will be required to remain closed for some time yet.

It may prove challenging to convince some staff to return to work on any basis. However, it is also likely that many will want to return as soon as possible in order to return to some resemblance of normality and in the hope of resuming their normal full rate of salary after coping with a reduced rate for some weeks.

Employers will need to take a variety of steps to ensure that they meet their legal obligations with regard to the health and safety of their staff at work, and to meet the needs of their insurers too.  It is our view that insurers as well as employees will want and need businesses to introduce robust policies before allowing their staff to return to work while the threat of the coronavirus is still with us. Risk assessments will need and recorded (to prove to staff and insurers alike that the business is addressing the health and safety issues concerned). We have little doubt that generic existing policies may regarded as inadequate by both worried staff and business insurers. This means that employers should produce risk assessments addressing the particular issues and concerns relating to the coronavirus. Therefore, matters such as social distancing in the workplace, increased hand washing, guidance on proper handwashing and other cleaning (such as cleaning of office and business equipment and work surfaces) should be included in the range of risk assessments to be produced. Measures to limit and management the numbers of people entering premises should be covered.

Some employers may wish to review the need for expensive office space, particularly if home-working has proved successful. Obviously, there are management steps that come with homeworking, such as effective measuring of work and maintaining confidentiality that need to be addressed. However, in our experience these matters are achievable with the right staff, and with the right commitment from managers. There can be a lot of suspicion over those that are working from home, but equally we find that many workers that appear to be in the office or workplace all day are not necessarily more productive as a result of that!

We have often come across businesses that are quick to challenge the issue and claimed costs of having people work from home, but then fail to see that the office space and use of that office space is also expensive (think of the cleaning costs, heating costs, lighting cost, etc associated with each worker in the office, let alone the rental costs).

Managing the perception of safety will be just as important as managing the actual safety requirements, and this need to manage the perceptions of staff will only increase with the extension of the time they are not in the workplace. Communication with staff will be key to managing the perception of health risks, so we believe that businesses should be keeping in touch with all their staff, and increase that communication in the run up to any re-opening of offices and workplaces. Staff should be told of the measures that the business will be taking in additional to the existing steps, to safeguard their health at work. For some businesses it may also be helpful to ask their staff for any particular suggestions (though this may in turn need to be managed, as there will be costs as well as practical issues to take into account).

Employers need to remember the law protecting staff from risks to their health at work, (see our article in April 2020 on this topic). To address this issue, clear communication with staff over the steps being taken to enable a safe return to work is vital.                  

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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