What employers should consider now restrictions have lifted

Businesses need to prepare to mediate between the anxious and the less cautious as they look to bring staff back to the workplace, says Sarah Taylor

The great return

Before employers reintroduce staff back to the workplace, they should conduct thorough risk assessments and follow the government’s Working safely during coronavirus guidance. Assessments should consider the risks to those who are clinically extremely vulnerable or clinically vulnerable to Covid-19 and those for whom the vaccine is less effective. Employers may decide to retain preventative measures that go beyond the legal minimum, including face masks and social distancing. 

Some employees may be reluctant to return to the workplace given the rising number of cases and the threat of long Covid, and those travelling to work via public transport may have greater concerns following the removal of restrictions. Employers will need to consult on an individual basis with employees who raise health and safety concerns about returning to the workplace. 

Certain businesses, like nightclubs, will be reopening after many months of closure, and employers need to manage the transition back to work for furloughed staff, or to recruit and train new staff. Roles in these businesses will often involve close contact with the public, and employers should conduct risk assessments and follow sector-specific guidance to mitigate risks to their workforce.

Workplace outbreaks

The vaccination programme does not eliminate infection and transmission, so even the vaccinated workforce may find themselves incapacitated by coronavirus. Employers must be aware of this and plan to ensure continuity. 

From 16 August, fully vaccinated individuals do not need to self-isolate following close contact with a positive case. Employers may, however, choose to implement internal contact tracing and maintain a remote working option in these circumstances. It remains a legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive test or notification from NHS Test and Trace until 30 September, and employers who knowingly allow a self-isolating worker into the workplace risk a fixed penalty notice of up to £10,000. 

Understandably, many employers will be interested in the vaccination status of staff whose roles cannot be performed remotely. Employers must consider data protection laws and discrimination issues before soliciting such information.

Protecting staff 

With the reintroduction of corporate hospitality at large-scale events, employers should be conscious not to expose employees to unreasonable risk. Hospitality, transport and retail workers may be especially concerned about contracting Covid from members of the public once restrictions are lifted. Retaining preventative measures could help protect staff, although these may be difficult to enforce in respect of third parties. Employers should also be mindful of equality issues.

Prolonged isolation may exacerbate conflict between returning staff, and employers should prepare to mediate between anxious and less cautious parties. The pandemic may have prompted further divisions in the workforce, with employers needing to rebuild an inclusive culture. 

Supporting working parents

New measures for schools mean children will no longer need to self-isolate after close contact with a positive case. Working parents and employers alike will welcome this news, having experienced widespread disruption since the start of the pandemic. However, with cases rising and no vaccination programme for children, employers should expect further disruption and continue to find ways to support working parents.

What’s next…

Although the government hopes to avoid reinstating significant restrictions, it has not ruled out further lockdowns or restrictions in response to new variants. If the past 18 months have taught us anything, it is that everything can change in the blink of an eye, and employers need to ensure that their planning for the next 12 months reflects this. 

Sarah Taylor is a senior associate at Stevens & Bolton, LLP