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Christmas cancelled - the 'rule of six' limits work social gatherings

This week one of our employer clients asked us whether his company could host its annual social get together. He was particularly keen for it to go ahead this year to thank his staff for "pulling out all the stops" to keep the business running smoothly during lockdown. His staff also wanted the social to go ahead ... and the hotel, where the event was due to take place, wanted the business to confirm their booking which had been made pre-covid. 

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 came into force on Monday 13 September. These introduced the new 'rule of six' which prevents people in England from meeting in groups of more than six (both indoors and outdoors) unless an exception applies. 

There's a list of exemptions - including one that applies to work* and to social gatherings that take place at premises operated by 'a business, charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution or public body'. So, that would cover the average work social event. But, people have to remain in a 'qualifying group' of six people or less and that group are not allowed to 'mingle' (and yes, that is how the legislation puts it) with other qualifying groups. 

So, if you have a team of six or less, you may be able to sensibly say that you can avoid mingling with other people also at the same venue. But, if your team is larger than that it will be almost impossible to do so. And, that's before you even add alcohol to the mix.

What does mingling even mean? Unhelpfully, it's not defined in the legislation and the government's press release simply says that 'groups must not mix socially or form larger groups'. This suggests that talking to someone outside your group isn't allowed but what about saying a quick hello or attempting a weird series of hand and facial gestures to communicate at a (social) distance? 

The other thing to consider is whether your staff should socially distance at the event in their qualifying groups. The guidelines for restaurants, pubs and bars says that it's 'important that people from different households or support bubbles meeting in a single group remain socially distanced'. It's difficult to see how having a meal or any other sort of social function that requires people to be two metres away from each other will appeal to anyone. Even if social distancing isn't required for each qualifying group (it's not clear), why would you want to relax your rules on social distancing for one evening? If someone does contract the virus, then your entire team of six (or more if they've mingled) will have to self-isolate for 14 days. That won't be good for your bottom line or, potentially, your reputation.

Most employers have already told their staff they won't be holding social events and Christmas parties this year. But, for those who do want to go ahead, there's always grouse shooting and a few other outdoor sports you can do in larger numbers than six!

*All workplaces open to staff or to members of the public have to put in place health and safety measures to minimise the transmission of the virus.

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The reference to shooting is the only one qualified with a note that says: “Including hunting and paintball that requires a shotgun or firearms certificate licence”. A link takes readers to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC).”