Government reportedly preparing return to work guidance

Department for BEIS said to be producing advice on reopening in ‘granular detail’ as CIPD launches its own guide for bringing employees back

The government could be issuing detailed guidance on how businesses around the UK can safely return to work as early as this week, it has been reported, as a number of companies are starting to slowly ramp up business. 

According to a report by the Financial Times, business secretary Alok Sharma will publish guidance before this weekend that will break down in “granular detail” how businesses can start to reopen once prime minister Boris Johnson orders the easing of the lockdown.

This will reportedly set out how safe working can take place in confined areas like factories and offices while keeping in mind social distancing measures, and include advice to restrict access to communal workplace spaces. The Health and Safety Executive is said to be working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to approve standards for employers.

The news comes as some businesses have started to announce plans to reopen. Coffee chain Pret a Manger has reopened 10 of its branches for takeaways – all with reduced hours and strict social distancing measures to protect staff and customers, including perspex screens in front of tills and a reduced number of kitchen staff.

KFC has said it is planning to expand its delivery service, having already opened 20 restaurants and with plans in the pipeline to open 80 more. And pub chain Wetherspoon has also said it would reopen pubs “in or around” June, although hasn’t outlined detailed plans.

A spokesperson for BEIS would not confirm the reports in the FT, but said the business secretary was in constant communication with businesses and other stakeholders.

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Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD, told People Management there would be a limit to how detailed any government guidance could be, as all health and safety measures needed be tailored to the employer or the office's needs.

"Every employer has to be thinking in detail about every role, every worker, every workplace scenario and what it means in terms of implementing those safety and hygiene measures set out by the government," she said. 

Suff advised that HR teams would need to go through risk assessments to "break down at a very detailed level" what their organisation should be doing to protect people in the workplace, adding it was important for HR to use this time to prepare and plan its next steps – including how workers get to their workplace if travel restrictions are still in place.

The report comes as the CIPD yesterday (29 April) released a returning to the workplace guide for people professionals, which warned any changes to the current lockdown restrictions were likely to be slow and sector-specific. "We know that certain measures like social distancing will still be in place for a long time to come until there's treatment or a vaccine for coronavirus," said Suff.

Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment at Fieldfisher, said she expected any government guidance about the easing of lockdown restrictions to have a timetable or structure around which sectors would open, when and for how long. Schools and educational institutes would be one of the first sectors to be reopened as many workers are struggling to balance work responsibilities with caring for and educating their children. 

"Businesses will need to know what's expected of them, when they can open and at what time, but equally they need to understand what's happening in the education sector because workers themselves know how much time they have available for work," Dhindsa said. 

The government's existing guidance could give some insight into what any new industry specific industries might entail, suggested Matthew Howse, partner at Morgan Lewis. “Unsurprisingly, the existing guidance focuses on a range of measures from employee scheduling through staggered shifts, regular screening protocols, training for employees on social distancing and hygiene measures, cleaning and disinfecting, provision of personal protective equipment among others,” he said.

“Maintaining safe social distancing in the workplace will likely be a key issue,” Howse said, adding that whatever the details are, employers will need to ensure their practices comply with their statutory duty to take reasonable steps to look after their worker’s health.

Writing in the FT, Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said companies would welcome “clear guidance” on how to reopen as many are “rightly impatient to get back to work”, but they needed room to adapt.

She called on the government to provide guidance that allowed for a “phased opening” of the UK economy based on organisations’ capacity to cope with new safety measures, and cautioned against a “one size fits all” approach.

“Restart will come at different times for different sectors,” Fairbairn said. “Offices, farms, factories and shop floors will all face different challenges. Hospitality sees little hope of renewed activity until autumn.”

But Fairbairn also warned that the success of any reopening of UK business would depend on the “ability to unlock the enablers of economic activity” like schools, nurseries and transport operators as employees would depend on these services to fully return to work.