Back to work strategy and 'COVID-19 secure' guidelines

A back to work strategy and guidelines to working safely during COVID-19 have been published.

In its Plan to Rebuild, the government states that, from 13 March, ‘for the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible … All workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open … It remains the case that anyone who has symptoms, however mild, or is in a household where someone has symptoms, should not leave their house to go to work. Those people should self-isolate, as should those in their households.’

The plan goes on to say that ‘as soon as practicable, workplaces should follow the new “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines’. These guidelines are underpinned by 5 themes:

  1. Work from home if you can. All reasonable steps should be taken by employers to help people work from home. But for those who cannot work from home and whose workplace has not been told to close … you should go to work. Staff should speak to their employer about when their workplace will open.
  2. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment. Employers will need to carry out COVID-19 risk assessments in consultation with their workers or trade unions, to establish what guidelines to put in place. If possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website and we expect all businesses with over 50 employees to do so.
  3. Maintain 2 metres social distancing, wherever possible. Employers should re-design workspaces to maintain 2 metre distances between people by staggering start times, creating one-way walk throughs, opening more entrances and exits, or changing seating layouts in break rooms.
  4. 4.Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk. Employers should look into putting barriers in shared spaces, creating workplace shift patterns or fixed teams minimising the number of people in contact with one another, or ensuring colleagues are facing away from each other.
  5. 5.Reinforce cleaning processes. Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points. Employers should display a notice display in their workplaces to show their employees, customers and other visitors to their workplace, that they have followed this guidance.

There are 8 separate guides covering different sectors:

Ultimately it is for an employer to decide who is on furlough and who is not and as the updated ACAS guidance makes clear, provided that an employer has done a risk assessment, talked to any union/ its employees and taken reasonable steps to make a workplace as safe as possible, then refusal to return without good reason can be a disciplinary matter.

The guidance recognises that not all industries can socially distance and suggests alternatives such as side by side rather than opposite and also the use of face coverings, particularly on public transport. It is important for employers to take steps to address the reasonable concerns of employees and particularly those in higher-risk groups, including these over 70 and those who are BAME, where current research shows they have an increased risk level. Perhaps alternative options such as using holiday or unpaid leave can be offered, if the Job Retention Scheme is no longer available. The CIPD has suggested that employers ask themselves three questions before bringing staff back into work: is it essential, is it safe and is it mutually agreed?

Forcing high-risk employees to return to work, especially where there is more of a risk they will catch COVID-19 because social distancing is difficult, may well lead to claims of failure to provide a safe place of work and that any dismissals for failing to come to work are dismissals for health and safety reasons. Also bear in mind that an allegation that the health or safety of any individual has been, is being or is likely to be endangered, can be whistleblowing and employees cannot be subjected to a detriment or dismissed for making this allegation. Neither claim requires a qualifying period and compensation is uncapped.