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Returning to work: government moves the goalposts again

Last month, the government told the working public that they should return to their workplaces if they were 'covid secure' and suggested, if they didn't, they might be first in line for redundancy. Yesterday, in response to the worrying rise in the spread of the virus, they were told to work from home if they can. 

We answer the top five questions our employer clients have asked us the new approach.

1. Some of our staff have returned to the office. Do we have to send them home to work again?

We don't think so. The government has issued a press release which says:

"To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so." 

This suggests that it's up to businesses to determine their own approach (which is pretty much what most were doing anyway). Businesses can only re-open if it's safe for their staff (and customers) which they have to demonstrate by carrying out a full covid-secure risk assessment and displaying the 'Staying COVID-19 Secure in 2020' notice. For example, the guidance relating to offices and contact centres requires businesses to put in place strict cleaning measures, ensure that staff can socially distance and that the building is adequately ventilated. 

If you would like some staff to continue to work at your premises, make sure they are happy (and it's safe) for them to do so and that you a good reason to support your decision. If they have concerns about the increase in the infection rates, and can work from home, you should allow them to do so. 

The PM was asked in Parliament about workers who preferred to work away from their home to support their mental health. He confirmed that they could (although this doesn't appear in the press release or the FAQs: explaining what individuals can and can't do).

The government has not yet updated the 14 sector specific guides to working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) to reflect its new 'work from home' guidance.

2. What about if they use public transport or car share to get to work?

Government guidance on travel was updated today. It suggests that people should walk or cycle to their destination if they can and, if that's not possible, to use public transport or drive. Anyone using public transport, must wear a face covering and should follow the safer travel guidance for passengers.

The government asks people to avoid sharing a vehicle with anyone outside of their own household or support bubble. 

Employers don't have any statutory legal responsibility for an employee’s journey to the workplace. Health and safety legislation only cover the risks which employees may be exposed to at work – not the risks they may face whilst travelling to and from work. However, because the health risks associated with public travel and car sharing are potentially high, we recommend that you factor in travel as part of your health and safety assessments. If you have concerns about their safety and they can work from home, they should do so.

3. What do we do about staff who can't work from home?

The press release makes it clear that anyone who can't work from home can remain in the workplace provided it is safe for them to do so.  

"Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work. The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk."

The shielding programme ended for most people on 1 August 2020. Our blog, available here, provides advice about vulnerable and extremely vulnerable people returning to work. 

4. Are there special rules about public sector employers?

The press release states that: "Public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work where necessary." This reflects the government's intention to keep schools and colleges open and to make sure that critical public services aren't affected.

5. Can we have face to face meetings with clients?

You can have direct meetings with clients but, only if these are necessary. If they are, you must follow social distancing rules. The 'rule of six' doesn't apply to work groups - but it's not entirely clear whether potential clients would fall within this definition. In any event, you should ask yourself whether you actually need face to face contact when remote technology is available (and most people have got used to it now). 

Your risk assessments should cover face to face meetings. Therefore, if you decide to go ahead with a meeting in person, make sure your staff understand and follow the rules you have in place to protect them and the person they are meeting.

Our Coronavirus updates

We're working hard to keep you up to date with legal developments around Coronavirus. We've set up a portal which includes lots of helpful articles and advice to help you.

If you have a query, that we haven't answered, please contact us.

Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, later told the BBC’s Today programme: “We are stressing that if it is safe to work in your workplace, if you are in a Covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it.

“But, if you can work from home you should.””