England’s second national lockdown and HR: what we know so far

What are the new rules for shielding employees? Will offices now be forced to close again? People Management gives the lowdown

England will enter a second national lockdown after a rapid rise in coronavirus cases, the government announced over the weekend. 

Official figures showed that an estimated 560,000 people in England had Covid-19 between 17 and 23 October. The data collected by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found there were an average of 51,900 new cases per day in private households in England during this timeframe. This is up from an estimated 35,200 new cases per day for the period from 10 to 16 October.

On Sunday (1 November), the UK recorded 23,254 new confirmed cases of coronavirus and 162 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

In a broadcasted Downing Street news conference on 31 October, prime minister Boris Johnson said the new lockdown restrictions would – pending a vote in parliament on them this week – come into effect on Thursday (5 November) to prevent a "medical and moral disaster" for the NHS as the number of infections rose. 

“Christmas is going to be different this year, perhaps very different, but it's my sincere hope and belief that by taking tough action now we can allow families across the country to be together,” Johnson said. 

With the new lockdown set to come into effect in a few days, People Management provides the lowdown on whether this means offices closing once again, on shielding employees and more...

Who do the new lockdown restrictions apply to? 

The measures, which will come into effect at midnight on Thursday 5 November and run until Wednesday 2 December, will only affect employers operating in England, as the devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have separate guidance that businesses have to adhere to. 

Which businesses need to close? 

Pubs, restaurants, gyms, personal care and beauty facilities, theatres and non-essential shops will have to close for four weeks from Thursday. However, non-essential retail can remain open for delivery to customers and click and collect. Hospitality venues like restaurants, bars and pubs can still provide takeaway and delivery services. Food shops, supermarkets, garden centres and other retailers providing essential goods and services can stay open. Unlike the restrictions in spring, schools, colleges and universities can remain open. 

Additionally, a number of public services will stay open, including the NHS and medical services, Jobcentre Plus sites, courts and civil registration offices. A full list of the business closures will be published and set out in law in due course, the government said.

Commenting on the government’s announcement of the new restrictions in England, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, outgoing director general of the CBI, said the lockdown was a “decision for the government, not business”, but warned a second lockdown “[marked] the start of a bleak midwinter” for many businesses.

What are the rules for shielding employees?

The government has said those over the age of 60 and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable should be "especially careful", but the prime minister advised that shielding would not be reinstated in the same way as it was during the previous lockdown in spring. However, Johnson also said vulnerable people should not go to work even if they could not work from home. 

Kate Palmer, HR director at Peninsula, said this threw up questions around whether statutory sick pay (SSP) would be reinstated for shielding employees in the same way it was before. “Previously, those shielding were entitled to SSP subject to meeting eligibility criteria, and we are awaiting confirmation that SSP entitlement will recommence,” said Palmer.

Full new guidance is expected to be published later today, and the government has said it will write to everybody who is clinically extremely vulnerable to set out detailed advice while the new restrictions are in place. Current advice is in place at each local Covid alert level.

Do offices have to close?

The government guidance already advised that, where possible, everyone who could work effectively from home should do so. In industries that cannot facilitate working from home, like construction or manufacturing, people should continue to travel and attend their workplaces. Additionally, public sector employees working in essential services – including education, police and healthcare – should continue to go to work sites. 

But a question mark remains over what constitutes being unable to work from home, with many employers – even in ‘very high’ risk areas – keeping offices open over recent weeks to allow those struggling to work from home as a result of mental health issues or unsuitable working environments (for example, flat shares) to still attend a place of work.

Barry Ross, director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, advised that – even in light of the latest lockdown restrictions – offices could technically remain open, provided the business did not fall into the list of those required to close. “The question is going to be whether or not an employee can realistically work from home,” he said. If employees cannot do all of their job from home or are unable to work at all from home, employees are permitted to travel to work, provided their offices are open, he advised.

But, he added: “If employees can work from home, then employers should not be forcing their employees to come into the office.”

What support is available to employers? 

All businesses – whether forced to close or not – will be provided with additional financial support to get through this second lockdown. The government’s furlough scheme, which was set to end over the weekend, will now remain open until December, with employees eligible to receive 80 per cent of their current salary for hours not worked. (See here for more details on how this extension will work in practice.) 

In addition to the extended furlough scheme, businesses forced to close will still be able to receive grants worth up to £3,000 per month under the local restrictions support grant and the government will give £1.1bn to local authorities, distributed on the basis of £20 per head, for one-off payments to enable them to support businesses more broadly. Both these measures were announced as part of the support packaged for businesses affected by tier-three restrictions.

What will happen in a month’s time?

The government has said that, after 2 December, the restrictions would be eased and regions would go back to the previous tier system, depending on the severity of infection in their local area. 

However, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has said the England-wide lockdown could be extended if the number of coronavirus cases continued to rise. In an interview on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Gove said it was his "fervent hope" that the new lockdown would end on 2 December, but that ministers would be "guided by the facts".