A return to the workplace

On 5 July 2021, the Prime Minister announced the UK government’s plans to lift the remaining Covid-19 legal restrictions in England from 19 July 2021 following a further review of the health crisis on 12 July 2021 (with varying timeframes across the other nations of the United Kingdom).  Should the lifting of restrictions be confirmed on 12 July, it is expected that there will no longer be legal limits on social contact or social distancing, or mandatory face covering requirements except in certain specific settings (such as healthcare settings). Event and venue capacity caps are also expected to be dropped and venues such as nightclubs should be permitted to reopen. UK employers are therefore anticipating a return to the workplace over the next few months, with the government’s message of “work from home where you can” expected to be removed from 19 July 2021.

With a safe return to the workplace in mind, to the extent they have not done so already, employers should be ensuring their workplaces are “Covid-secure” and risk assessments have been conducted in line with the UK’s Health and Safety Executive’s regularly updated guidelines which are scheduled for further review on 19 July 2021. Practical measures to be put in place will vary depending on the nature of the workplace and industry-specific guidelines, but employers may need to (or wish to) produce policy documents to outline protocols covering meetings, hand washing, mask-wearing, shielding and self-isolation in the event of exposure to Covid-19. In terms of the practical logistics of a return to the workplace, employers should consider whether they wish to continue flexible working arrangements that may currently be in place for their workforce including working from home, the rotation of teams with allocated days to attend the workplace and even specifying arrival and departure times to avoid “bottle necks” in reception areas. UK employers have a duty to consult with employees on matters concerning health and safety at work so will need to engage with their workforce and any relevant unions in good time in advance of a return to the workplace.

Some UK employers will also be preparing for the anticipated end of UK government financial support towards employer costs through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (which is currently set to run until the end of September 2021), the reintegration of furloughed employees, managing levels of accrued untaken annual leave which employers may seek to require their employees take at specific times to ensure it is well distributed, the management of employees who are reluctant to return to the workplace and their options in terms of disciplinary processes and navigating potential employment claims associated with any such processes, as well as potential headcount reductions and redundancies.

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