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COVID: What the end of most legal restrictions means for office-based employers

Posted on 15 July 2021

This article was updated on 15 July to take account of revised Government workplace guidance

Removing most legal coronavirus restrictions from 19 July raises many issues for employers. The Government is transferring more responsibility for managing COVID risks onto businesses. Many of the legal restrictions are being replaced with guidelines that businesses and individuals are encouraged to follow. We set out below key points for office-based employers to bear in mind.

No more 'work from home if you can'

While guidance advising staff to work from home if they can is being removed from 19 July, the Government has emphasised that it expects workforces to make a gradual return to the office over the summer. A more gradual return is likely to suit those employers who are in the process of introducing hybrid working arrangements. However, many businesses are already well advanced in their planning for a large-scale return to the office and we recommend that employers take stock of this latest announcement which has been incorporated into the updated guidance and factor this into their return to work timetable.

Maintaining a COVID-secure workplace

Even though legal public health requirements on social distancing (including limits on how many people can meet) and face coverings are largely being removed from 19 July, employers still need to ensure that they comply with health & safety workplace obligations. The Government guidance on managing coronavirus in the workplace has been updated and is less in-depth, giving employers more discretion about how to implement safety measures. Employers should review their workplace risk assessments in light of both the updated Government and HSE guidance.

The updated guidance states that an employer's health and safety measures from 19 July still need to take into account three key workplace controls - adequate ventilation, frequent cleaning, and good hand hygiene. Social distancing is no longer included as a fourth key workplace control. In its place, the updated guidance emphasises other ways of mitigating risk. For example, by having 'fixed teams' (so each person only works with  a few other colleagues), using screens or barriers to separate people, and having back-to-back or side-to-side  instead of face-to-face working positions. While face coverings will no longer be required by law from 19 July, the updated guidance still encourages their use -for example, in indoor areas where staff may come into contact with people they do not normally meet. Some businesses have already indicated that they will continue certain safety measures even where updated guidance does not expressly require it. Therefore, an employer may still choose, for example, to maintain social distancing measures in the office.

As part of maintaining a safe workplace, employers still need to take into account the additional risks faced by particularly vulnerable workers. Government guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable workers has been updated to take account of the 19 July changes. Employers should continue to consider appropriate ways to manage the risk for vulnerable staff, for whom home working or other more flexible working arrangements may well be appropriate.

Commuting to and from the office

Some workers may have concerns about the COVID risks associated with commuting on public transport.  While the legal requirement to wear face coverings on public transport is being removed with effect from 19 July, new Government guidance will recommend that people should still wear them in crowded places. Sadiq Khan has, for example, already indicated that masks will continue to be compulsory on public transport in the capital. 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.

If you would like more information on how best to manage the return to the office, please get in touch with your usual Mishcon de Reya contact or with a member of our Employment team.

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