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14 July 2021 0 Comments
Posted in Employment, Opinion

Upcoming changes to Covid-19 restrictions for businesses

Author headshot image Posted by , Partner
Contributing authors: Alex Kuklenko

Last week, the FT reported that the government would shortly be announcing updated guidance for businesses with regards Covid-19 restrictions in the workplace.

It was suggested that staff would no longer be legally required to wear face coverings, or to distance themselves from colleagues and customers. Instead employers would play a much greater role in deciding whether or not their employees had to adhere to certain Covid-19 restrictions.

The BBC has since confirmed that employers will be left to decide whether or not their employees are required to wear face masks, from Monday 19 July.

These changes will coincide with the Government’s plan to end the “work from home” guidance for businesses, in England, which will come into practice from the same date.

Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has said that the government’s plan allows for risk to be “outsourced” to businesses.

Current and previous policies

Previously, the Government guidance had requested that employers conduct health and safety risk assessments in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within the workplace.

Guidance had gone as far as suggesting that employees should not swap pens, and that employers should not allow employees who had returned to the office to ‘hot desk’.

The revised guidance

It is expected that the revised guidance will still require companies to carry out health and safety risk assessments in the workplace.

However, employers will be expected to “make many of their own decisions” with regards to implementing measures in order to minimise the spread of Covid-19. As noted above, this will include employers determining whether or not their employees will need to wear face masks after 19 July.

Companies such as Ryanair and British Airways have already said that they intend on making masks mandatory after July 19 for both staff and customers.

These changes demonstrate how the government intends on giving employers “much greater discretion to decide on safe working conditions” with regards to Covid-19.

Flexi working

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) is also reportedly issuing guidance that will state that if an employee asks about hybrid working, that their employer should consider the request. ACAS guidance will also consider how staff working from home should not be discriminated against by missing out on training and promotion opportunities.

Despite this guidance from ACAS, government officials have suggested that ministers are not seeking to legislate on making flexible working a default arrangement for employees. Instead, companies will be expected to adopt a position on this matter.

Consequences for HR and Employers

Although the new government guidance has not been finalised, it seems that employers who do not enforce Covid-secure measures in the workplace could be at an increased risk of being sued in instances where there is an outbreak of Covid-19.

Furthermore, if employers do require their employees to continue to wear masks and to practice social distancing after July 19, and some or all of their staff refuse, then the question arises as to how HR and employers will enforce these new policies.

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