Employers will be considering the impact of the Government's announcement yesterday evening about moving to Plan B in England. Immediate issues for employers include:
'Work from home if you can'
With effect from Monday 13 December, office workers in England should work from home "if they can". This, at least for the time being, is being “advised”, rather than directed. At the time of writing, the Government's guidance has yet to be fully updated, but in our view, employers should take a common sense approach here. If workers are reasonably able to work from home, they should do so. If workers can't – for example because their job means they need to be in the office or for physical or mental health reasons – then they can still come into the office.
Maintain a COVID-secure workplace
Plan B is being implemented in response to the increased risks of transmission and infection from the Omicron variant. Employers should therefore review their health and safety risk assessments and consider any changes or additional steps necessary to keep their workplaces COVID-secure. In addition to the headline control measures - adequate ventilation, cleaning and good hand hygiene –other measures to consider in the current context including:
- mask wearing, for example when arriving/leaving or otherwise moving around the office;
- limiting worker contact in the office, for example by social distancing, and using fixed teams or partnering so each person works with the same, consistent group; and
- requiring those coming into the office to take a COVID test. Given the privacy issues related to testing staff, employers should ensure that any such testing regime is carried out lawfully, taking into account issues such as data protection and discrimination law. At present, while a new requirement to produce COVID passports (or proof of a negative test) is being introduced to large scale events, these mandatory rules do not apply to the majority of employers.
- reminding staff of the need to follow COVID-secure office requirements.
Christmas parties are still permitted, but employers should be careful to ensure that they are made as safe as possible (see above).
Employers who have been implementing hybrid working arrangements may need to revisit / suspend these in light of the Government's 'work from home if you can' guidance.
Some workers may have concerns about the COVID risks associated with commuting on public transport. The employment law issues in this area are complex, as is the employee relations aspect - employers should listen to and see how best to address staff concerns about commuting. These could include minimising commuting where possible and staggering working hours so that staff can travel at non-peak times.
The new restrictions are not as severe as those imposed last March. While it is unclear at present what disruption this may cause to business, many employers will welcome the lighter touch approach.
If you would like more information on how best to manage COVID-19 workplace issues, please get in touch with your usual Mishcon de Reya contact or with a member of our Employment team.