The pandemic is not over yet
It is hard to ignore the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. In fact, the average number of daily confirmed cases has been rising sharply in recent weeks, with a further 36,660 confirmed cases in the UK being announced on Tuesday 13 July 2021. The Prime Minister has made it clear that COVID-19 continues to exist and carries risks for everyone in the country, so England cannot simply revert instantly to life as it was before COVID-19 from 19 July 2021. Businesses will still therefore need to consider government guidance, put relevant COVID-19 precautions in place and factor COVID-19 into their risk assessments for some time to come.
The Government's plan to replace legal obligations with guidance emphasising personal responsibility means that both individuals and businesses will end up operating in an uncertain and inconsistent environment. How strictly will businesses be expected to adhere to government guidance? How easily will businesses be able to enforce control measures without the backing of the law? How will the guidance be enforced?
The mixed messages we have seen over the past few weeks regarding face coverings is a prime example of the confusion that may erupt following 19 July 2021; the Government at first announced that the legal requirement to wear face coverings will be lifted in all settings, but later clarified that the government expects and recommends that face coverings are worn in crowded and enclosed spaces, such as public transport, when mixing with people you don’t normally meet. It will ultimately be down to individual companies to decide their position in respect of whether they will expect or enforce employees or customers to wear face coverings, meaning that the rules could differ from one business to the next. The confusion and inconsistency that arises from allowing individuals and companies to take personal responsibility will undoubtedly make control measures difficult for companies to enforce.
Another issue employers face is ongoing workplace tensions. From 19 July the Government will no longer be instructing people to work from home meaning that employers can start to plan a return to workplaces. This is likely to open up conversations about what a return to 'normal' work life will look like and employers will have to carefully consider whether they are going to require their employees to physically attend work, make a more permanent switch to remote working, or a mixture of the two. With COVID-19 still prevalent in everyday life, requiring high risk individuals or members of their household to attend the workplace is likely to lead to challenges, especially with the reduction of legal restrictions in other places such as on public transport. Conversely, many people have found that remote working has had a negative impact on their work-life balance, so there may be opposing pressure from other employees for businesses to return to office working more permanently. Creating a solution that works for everyone will be a huge challenge.
The COVID-19 vaccine may also cause businesses difficulties. Employers are likely to want their employees to receive the vaccine as it lowers the risk of them catching and spreading COVID-19 to employees or customers and it is likely to help bring staff back safely into the workplace sooner. Currently, however, it is a personal choice as to whether to get the vaccine or not and there are some people who may have been advised not to have it, for example for health reasons. There is also a lot of misinformation about the vaccines circulating online which has convinced some people that the vaccine is unsafe. Employers can try and encourage employees to get the vaccine by, for example, sharing information from trusted sources and supporting their employees with time off to get the vaccine, but ultimately they cannot force an employee to get it. Again, this may cause tension amongst the workforce.
Businesses may also see an increase in enforcement activity as restrictions lift. For example, the HSE has stated that they plan to resume targeted proactive inspection work of high-risk industries.
The HSE has also confirmed that they will continue to carry out work to check that appropriate measures are in place to protect workers from COVID-19. For example, spot checks and inspections will continue to be carried out in areas where transmissions rates are rising in order to help stop new COVID-19 variants spreading. During these spot checks, the HSE will be checking whether the measures businesses have in place are in line with government guidance. We know that there is a focus by HSE on ventilation in the workplace, for example.
The above summarises only some of the challenges businesses will face when restrictions lift on 19 July. If you or your business would benefit from specialist health and safety related advice, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Join our multi-disciplinary team on 20 July for a webinar discussing how to protect your business as COVID restrictions relax but risk remains. This practical session focuses on how the decisions you are making now will significantly impact your potential liability in the short and longer-term.
This article was written by Alice Healy.