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Making workplaces ‘COVID-19 secure’ for employees returning to work

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday 10 May 2020, workers and employees should return to work if they cannot work from home. This has sparked many questions, including ‘is it safe for me to return to work?’; ‘can my employer force me to return to work?’; ‘how do I avoid contracting the virus?’ and many more.

The government has attempted to reassure the public by publishing guidance1 for UK employers to ensure that workplaces are ‘COVID secure’. These guidelines, created with the support of around 250 companies, aim to help employers get their businesses back to normal and ensure workplaces are as safe as possible for employees.

Firms, unions, industry bodies, Public Health England and Health and Safety England have been consulted for the guidance, with the aim being to develop best practice on the safest ways of working.

It should be noted that the new guidance applies to eight workplace settings, which are now permitted to open, including construction sites, factories, outdoor environments and takeaways. The government hopes this advice will give people the confidence that they return to work safely.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said the guidance “provides a framework to get the UK back to work in a way that is safe for everyone”.

“These are practical steps to enable employers to identify risks that COVID-19 creates and to take pragmatic and measures to mitigate them. And as we are able to reopen new sectors of the economy, we will continue our collaborative approach working with a wide range of stakeholders, to provide guidance for additional workplaces2.’

The five key principles of a ‘COVID-secure workplace’

Businesses are required to focus on five key points, which must be implemented as soon as is practical:

1. Work from home, if you can

Employers should take all reasonable steps to help ensure people can work from home. For those individuals whose work cannot be undertaken from home and whose workplace has not been told to close, the government says its message is clear: ‘you should go to work’.

Individuals have been told that they should speak to their employer about when their workplace will open.

2. Carry out COVID-19 risk assessments, in consultation with workers or trade unions

The guidance operates within current health and safety laws and equality legislation. Employers must carry out COVID-19 risk assessments in consultation with their workers or trade unions, to establish what guidelines to put in place.

If possible, employers should publish the results of risk assessments on their website and it is expected that all businesses with more than 50 employees should do so.

3. Maintain two metres’ social distancing ‘wherever possible’

Employers should re-design workspaces to maintain two-metre distances between people. Employers should stagger start/finish/break times, create one-way systems, and open more entrances and exits, or change seating layouts in break rooms.

4. Where people cannot be two metres apart, manage transmission risk

Where it is not possible for people to maintain a two-metre distance, employers should erect barriers in shared spaces, create workplace shift patterns or fixed teams to minimise the number of people in contact with one another, and ensure people are not facing each other.

5. Reinforcing cleaning processes

Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.

A downloadable notice is included in the guidance, which employers should display in their workplaces to show their employees, customers and other visitors that they have followed the guidance.

Implementing government COVID-19 guidance

Carolyn Fairburn, Director-General of the Chartered Business Institute (CBI), has said that “safety is at the heart of business thinking”.

“Unless people feel safe, employees won’t return, customers will stay away and the restart will falter, harming livelihoods and public services. This guidance will help. It gives firms a clearer picture of how to reopen safely and gradually.

The guidance builds on the good proactive plans many firms have developed during lockdown. Excellent engagement, fast workplace innovation and transparency have helped many companies support livelihoods. It’s right to build on this.”

However, she expressed concerns over the months of “change and challenge” the UK faces, and stressed the importance of evolving guidelines as knowledge increases.

The guidance applies to businesses that are currently open. It also includes advice for shops, which may reopen from 1 June 2020. However, it will be kept under review and may be amended over time.

It is understood that the government will develop and publish guidance for those sectors that are not currently open ensuring that they have time to plan. It will also set up taskforces to develop the safest way for those sectors to reopen.

Despite the published guidance many questions remain. Here are our thoughts on some of those unanswered questions:

Despite the published guidance many questions remain. Here are our thoughts on some of those unanswered questions:

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Hodge Jones & Allen can help support you through the COVID-19 crisis. Our offices remain open throughout this time so that we can be contacted on 0808 271 9413 or via our contact form and we can act immediately.