Coronavirus lockdown: the end of the beginning

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4 min read

The slight relaxation of social restrictions announced by the Prime Minister in England has not been accompanied by any immediate widening of the range of permitted business activities. That is set to change, but not until June at the earliest.

New messaging, very similar rules until end of May

The shift of message from “stay home” to “stay alert” in Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation on 10 May left the vast majority of lockdown measures in place, at least to the end of May.  After some initial confusion, the publication of new guidance on social distancing later that evening, followed by a 60 page “Covid-19 recovery strategy” the following lunchtime, has made it clear people who are able to work from home should continue to do so.  Nor, with the exception of garden centres, will any new categories of business be allowed to open when the revised regime (which as things stand will apply only in England) takes effect on 13 May.

The Government hopes that this can change from the beginning of June, when some children will return to school if all goes well and there could also be a phased re-opening of non-essential shops.  Re-opening of public spaces and some of the hospitality industry will not happen until the beginning of July at the earliest.  This plan – and the revised social distancing rules for individuals – have not been adopted by the devolved nations, which have no plans to relax the lock down at present.

In any event, for the next few weeks it seems that new Government messaging across the whole of the UK is primarily directed at businesses and their workforce who closed in response to the pandemic, without being compelled to do so.  The Government hopes that expanding the previously published health and safety guidance will provide a framework in which staff who cannot work from home can be confident that they can return to their normal workplace safely.

Revised guidance on social distancing at work

A new suite of guides on how businesses can operate safely during the pandemic were published on 11 May.  These build on the health and safety element in previously published general guidance to employers, plus the more limited sector based guidance first published on 7 April.

Although there are separate guides for eight different workplace types (including construction, factories, offices and shops) there is much common material. Three of these common elements, which were not made explicit in previous health and safety guidance, are of particular note:

  • The obligation to carry out a formal risk assessment in relation to Covid-19, in consultation with workers or trade unions.  Employers with more than 50 staff are expected to publish the risk assessment on their website;
  • The need to take steps to protect and support vulnerable staff;
  • The requirement to communicate the new measures adopted to staff before their return to work, and to provide suitable training where necessary.

All of these steps – which are underpinned by employers’ general health and safety obligations - will require effective engagement with the workforce.  This is likely to be equally important as reaching the correct technical solutions if a successful transition to the revised working arrangements is to be achieved.

Unwinding the coronavirus job retention scheme

While employers will need to grapple with these health and safety challenges, it remains possible to furlough staff under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

The Lord Chancellor announced on 12 May that the Scheme would continue in its present form until the end of July.  After that it will continue in a modified form until the end of October.  Furloughed employees will continue to receive 80% of their normal salary (subject to a cap of £2500 a month).  However the Scheme will be extended to allow workers already furloughed to return to work part-time, and employers will be asked to contribute to the costs.  More details will be announced by the end of May.

What will happen to public transport?

The availability of an adequate public transport network is a major concern to employers operating in the UK’s major cities.  The Covid-19 Recovery Strategy makes it clear that “social distancing guidance on public transport must be followed rigorously”. 

However it is clear, that, as in the workplace, it will not always be possible for people to stay two metres apart.  The Government issued new guidance on 12 May for transport operators and for individuals using public transport which addresses the issue like this:

“The government’s strategy and advice recognises that there will be times and some settings on public transport where social distancing is not possible. The new guidance outlines how people should try to minimise the duration of this, and take all necessary steps to observe these measures where possible.”

It has therefore been left to transport operators to determine what degree of social distancing they should enforce, in line with their legal obligations to protect the health and safety of their staff and the travelling public, and for the public to decide what degree of risk they are prepared to accept. 

Further reading

The two documents released since the Prime Minister’s latest speech on 9 May which are of particular interest to employers are the Covid-19 recovery strategy and the suite of health and safety guidance: Working safely during the coronavirus.

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