Covid-19 Summer 2021 Roadmap: What Employers need to know
On 5 July 2021 the government published the “Covid-19 Response: Summer 2021” (the Roadmap) setting out its plans to relax Covid-19 measures in England from Step 4 of the roadmap on 19 July 2021. The Roadmap saw the easing of certain restrictions in England at the start of this week and businesses are now subject to new advisory guidance on how they can help to reduce the spread of the virus and mitigate the risk of resurgence.
Employers are encouraged to read the latest advisory guidance affecting their sector in order to ensure up to date compliance and the newly released Working Safely Guidance Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) – Guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) however there are some commonalities across all sectors and this article seeks to highlight some of these for you.
Social distancing rules have now been lifted, with this easing extending to workplaces. All businesses will now be able to open without any limits on attendance or social distancing requirements. Employers do however still have an ongoing duty pursuant to Health & Safety legislation to implement appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of individuals and so employers who wish to continue enforcing social distancing as a means of achieving this are free to do so. Employers should continue to consider the risks of close contact with others, particularly if they have employees who are clinically extremely vulnerable or not yet fully vaccinated. Employers should ensure that they act reasonably when dealing with concerns from employees regarding social distancing and consider whether this remains a reasonable adjustment.
Working from home
Employees will no longer be advised by the government to work from home. Employers can start to plan a return to workplaces however, as with social distancing employer should consider whether this is a reasonable instruction to impose across a workforce and take a flexible approach to employee requests to continue working from home.
The government “expects and recommends” a gradual return to the workplace over the summer however, in practice, many employers are likely to reach their own decisions about new ways of working and employers who have decided on a continued home working or hybrid working arrangement should introduce policy documentation as appropriate.
The legal requirement to wear a face covering has been lifted in all settings but organisations are free to implement a policy which requires or advises their continued use.
The updated Working Safely Guidance advises that the use of face coverings by workers (and customers in retail settings) is still encouraged in enclosed or crowded spaces. Employers should support workers who chose to wear a face covering but should be mindful of those with disabilities before requiring that one is worn.
Individuals who are self-isolating should continue to socially distance from others. It will remain a legal requirement for individuals to self-isolate if they test positive or are told to do so by NHS Test and Trace, regardless of their vaccination status. However, the government intends to exempt those who are fully vaccinated from the requirement to self-isolate if they are a contact of a positive case, with a similar exemption for those under 18. The changes are due to come into effect from 16 August 2021.
Self-isolation enforcement and support will continue until at least the end of September 2021 .Positive cases and close contacts who cannot work from home will continue to be eligible for the £500 Test and Trace Support Payment. Employers should not require a self-isolating worker to come into work and should make sure that workers and customers who are unwell do not attend the workplace.
Employers who wish to remove employees from the workplace because they are concerned about their own health and safety or, the health and safety of others can do so however, any such instruction would likely be classed as a medical suspension attracting full pay.
Businesses are being encouraged to ask staff and customers to clean their hands regularly and clean surfaces that people touch regularly and to consider proper ventilation of indoor spaces. Employers should take account of the updated Working Safely Guidance when preparing their risk assessments which will remain a vital part of operations.
COVID status certification
Covid status certification will not be required in law as a condition of entry for visitors to any setting at the present time. Any future implementation would involve consultation and appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. Businesses may continue to ask for proof of Covid status, as long as they meet existing legal obligations, including under equality law.
As things stand there is no automatic right for an employer to ask an employee to disclose their vaccine status or, to require an employee to have a vaccine.
In terms of mandated vaccination, in most circumstances this will not be possible without risk however in cases where exposure to Covid-19 is greater, such as in care homes and healthcare environments, an employer might be able to make it a requirement of their role to have the vaccine.
Any consideration would require a thorough risk assessment which balances the amount that the risk of exposure would be reduced against the interference with the employee’s human rights. Consideration will need to be given as to whether insisting on the vaccine is proportionate to the risk and whether other less invasive steps could be taken instead, such as maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands.
Any requirement for employees to be vaccinated should be communicated clearly to employees and trade unions together with a clear explanation for why it is necessary.
Clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
The roadmap does not go into detail on the position of clinically extremely vulnerable individuals following the move to step 4. However, on 19July 2021, guidance regarding the protection of people on medical grounds was published by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England came into effect COVID-19: guidance on protecting people defined on medical grounds as extremely vulnerable – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
The guidance does not state that clinically extremely vulnerable individuals will have any additional rights to work from home beyond 19 July 2021. However, where they need support, they can apply for Access to Work, the government scheme to provide support for the disability-related extra costs of working that are beyond standard reasonable adjustments.
Displaying QR codes
Businesses will be encouraged to display QR codes for customers to check in using the NHS Covid-19 app, to support NHS Test and Trace, although it will no longer be a legal requirement. It seems unlikely that businesses will still be legally required to collect customer and staff data for contact tracing, but this is currently unclear.