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19th July 2021 – Freedom Day for Employers and Employees?
The Government have confirmed that its 4th step in the road map out of lockdown will take place on 19th July 2021. On what some have dubbed, “Freedom Day”, all of the restrictions imposed by the Government as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic will be lifted. But what does this mean for employers? Should COVID-measures stay in place? Does this mean there will be a return by employees en masse to the workplace? As Covid case numbers continue to rise and with the huge recent increase in NHS App “Pings” we consider the implications for employers and have highlighted some key points below.
What rules are changing?
The remaining COVID-related restrictions will be lifted. This means that face coverings in England will become recommended by Government guidance but will not be mandatory by law. For example, companies in the travel sector have been deciding whether people will have to wear face coverings when travelling but there is no legal requirement for them to do this. This will also include the one-metre plus rule on social distancing, the “rule of six” for meeting up indoors and the limits on the numbers of people who can meet up. Nightclubs are due to reopen, and large sporting events will be able to take place at full capacity.
What does this mean for employers?
Despite the fact that the Government is introducing these new rule changes, this does not alter the law on health and safety and the important obligations which continue to apply to all employers. Employers remain under the same legal duty to do what is reasonably necessary to ensure that their employees are provided with a safe workplace and safe system of work. The risk assessments which employers have carried out as a result of the COVID pandemic will certainly still be relevant and should continue to be applied when considering what measures are appropriate to ensure employees’ continued health and safety at work. For example, many prudent employers will continue to require staff to maintain social distancing to avoid crowding and continue to require employees to wear face masks in certain areas in order to minimise the risk of COVID infection in the workplace.
In particular, the “work from home if you can” rule is also due to be removed from Monday 19th. Whilst this may seem like an opportunity for employers to mandate the return of employees to their place of work, it is still worth considering whether or not it would be reasonable to require employees to make a physical return to the workplace. This is especially relevant where employees’ roles can be performed effectively remotely. A rush to return to the office, especially when the numbers of COVID cases are currently high, could be risky for employers. It also represents a workforce issue generally, given that now many employees are happy with the flexibility to work from home or the office, and implementing a wholesale return to the workplace may not be welcomed by employees.
Whilst employers and employees alike will be craving for freedom, and many will welcome the move to Stage 4 of the roadmap the reality is that employers’ responsibilities to provide a safe working environment continue and must still be considered on an ongoing basis. Many employers therefore quite rightly should continue to exercise caution in the weeks and months ahead.