New guidance on working safely during coronavirus published

Following last week’s announcements confirming that England will be moving to stage 4 on 19 July, the government has published new guidance which will apply from that date. The devolved nations are making slightly different arrangements about the lifting of the remaining COVID lock-down restrictions, though all the UK is moving in a similar direction.

As with the previous guidance, there are separate sections for different workplace settings, but the broad message remains the same:

“The government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can, so employers can start to plan a return to workplaces. During this period of high prevalence, the government expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer. You should discuss the timing and phasing of a return with your workers.

Employers and others must continue to follow statutory health and safety requirements, conduct a risk assessment, and take reasonable steps to manage risks in their workplace or setting, as set out in the below guides.”

While the message about a return to the workplace is clear, the messaging about maintaining social distance and wearing face coverings has been more mixed. The removal of legal restrictions in both these areas on 19 July will not absolve employers of the need to consider whether to retain some or all of these requirements in their particular workplace as part of their overall risk mitigation measures.

On face coverings, the following extract from the offices, factories and laboratories is representative:

"Face coverings are no longer required by law. However, the government expects and recommends that people continue to wear face coverings in crowded, enclosed spaces. Where worn correctly, this may reduce the risk of transmission to themselves and others. Be aware that workers may choose to wear a face covering in the workplace.

Consider encouraging the use of face coverings by workers (for example through signage), particularly in indoor areas where they may come into contact with people they do not normally meet. This is especially important in enclosed and crowded spaces.

When deciding whether you will ask workers or customers to wear a face covering, you would need to consider the reasonable adjustments needed for staff and clients with disabilities. You would also need to consider carefully how this fits with other obligations to workers and customers arising from the law on employment rights, health and safety and equality legislation."

Similarly, although the maintenance of social distancing is no longer an absolute legal requirement, employers will still need to consider where and when this should be adopted from a health and safety perspective. Clearly, however, lifting of these restrictions will make a crucial difference to the viability of many businesses, particularly in the entertainment and hospitality sectors, but this will need to be balanced by other appropriate mitigating measures.

Finally, it is worth re-iterating that there will be no immediate change to self-isolation requirements following contact with the virus, even for fully vaccinated individuals.  It will remain unlawful for an employer to allow an employee into the workplace who is under an obligation to self-isolate, whether because they have the virus themselves, or have been in close contact with an infected individual.

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