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In response to the concerning rise in new cases of Coronavirus in recent weeks, the Prime Minister made an announcement to the nation which introduces new restrictions to suppress the spread of the virus. Importantly, the government has confirmed the reinstatement of the policy that requires those who can work from home to do so.

Why are the rules changing?

Unfortunately, cases of Coronavirus have been rising daily throughout the UK in recent weeks, with the country’s Coronavirus alert level shifting back up to level 4 which means the disease is now spreading exponentially.

The government’s position is to act now with the imposition of restrictions in the hope these curb the flow of infections preventing tougher restrictions later, with the main aim of avoiding a second nationwide lockdown.

What should employers be doing?

Businesses will be, quite understandably, frustrated at the announcement, especially considering the government launched a campaign to get workers back into the office and supporting local cafes as recently as the start of this month. Many employers had been preparing their work places for the return of their employees in line with the government guidance and back to work campaign, which has undoubtedly cost them time and money. However, it is clear that the government is now abandoning this campaign in favour of the more cautious position which requires those who are able to work from home to do so.

In short, in terms of what this means from employers (in the absence of any substantial guidance from the government) is that employers should revert back to the approach they took prior to 1 August. This means that, as all employers are under obligations to take reasonable care of their employees’ safety, they should discuss with employees their home environments to ensure that the individuals are able to safely continue their work from home. As employers will have already had discussions with employees in March about how they can effectively work from home, they should be able to revert back to those established principles with (relative) ease. See our previous blogs “practical issues of working from home” and “legal issues of working from home” for more information.

However, if it is impossible for employees to carry out their work from home e.g. construction or factory workers, then the position remains that those employees can continue to work provided their employers are complying with the government guidance to ensure that their workplace is “COVID-19 secure”. Different sectors have different types of workplaces and therefore there has been, and will continue to be, government guidance tailored to those workplaces. Employers should continue to check the government guidance in regards to their respective sector.

However, as a reminder there are, broadly speaking, 5 key principles to ensure a COVID-19 secure workplace:

  1. Work from home, if you can – this was the principle since the lockdown started and now applies again but if you cannot work from home you should go to work.
  2. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions.
  3. Maintain 2 metres social distancing, wherever possible.
  4. Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk e.g. barriers in shared spaces, shift patterns and ensuring colleagues are facing away from each other.
  5. Reinforcing cleaning processes e.g. providing handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.

What happens next?

It is hoped that the government will release more detailed guidance about the reintroduced work from home policy to assist employers. However, in the meantime we would urge employers to remain on the cautious side, pausing all plans to bring back employees to their workplaces in favour of the work from home polices that they adopted during the summer months.

If you would like to discuss any issues around staff working from home please contact a member of the Employment team.

This blog was co-written by Fred Chandler, Trainee Solicitor and Claire Merritt, Partner.