What does the new tiered lockdown scheme mean for employers?

As England prepares to move into a new system of regional restrictions, People Management asked the experts how businesses should react

As the end of the national lockdown in England approaches, prime minister Boris Johnson outlined plans last night (23 November) for what happens next. As many expected, on 2 December the country will return to a localised three-tiered system, similar to the scheme introduced in October, with employees who are able to do so being asked to continue working from home for the foreseeable future.

Employers have been specifically warned not to expect a sudden change, with Johnson saying yesterday that he expected things “will look and feel very different” after Easter – leading to speculation that the work from home advice could stay in place until April.

While it is still unclear which areas of the country will go into which tier next week, the government has published its 60-page winter plan, outlining in detail what each level involves – with each tier in this iteration of the system notably stricter than before the England-wide lockdown.

Under the lowest tier one restrictions, shops will reopen and some mixing will be allowed. Under tier two, pubs and bars will be told to close unless they are serving substantial meals, and under the highest tier three restrictions all hospitality and entertainment venues must close apart from takeaways, deliveries and and drive through.

But what will this mean in practice for employers, and how can they manage the transition from lockdown to the new tier system? People Management consulted the experts…

What will the new tiers mean for businesses?

For some companies, the new tired system provides a much-needed opportunity for businesses to start trading again in the run-up to Christmas, says Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation. “This is an important time for firms to be able to open securely where possible,” he said. But, he adds, many employers could remain under tough restrictions. “These businesses will need to know soon where they stand,” says Carberry.

Gemma Bullivant, HR consultant and coach, warns that it is less about the severity of the lockdown, and more about the complexity of the system, that could prove difficult for employers. The setting of tier levels will depend on a number of local factors, including the infection rate and projected pressure on the NHS.

“Even if you accept that a geographical approach, while complex, is the pragmatic thing to do and cross-regional businesses manage to plan with that in mind, there are two things that make it almost impossible for them to plan and transition effectively: a fortnightly review of the tier allocation and the mystical blend of factors determining the tier level,” she says.

How much stricter is this compared to the last tier system?

Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at CIPD, says while the regional tiered approach is broadly the same, the tiers themselves have undergone some changes. “For example, pubs and restaurants will now be able to close at 11pm rather than 10pm where tier one and two restrictions apply, which is less restrictive than before,” she said. “However, some types of business activity will still be significantly restricted in tiers two and three.”

The government is expected to announce which areas are in which tier on 26 November, which will determine if more businesses face tighter restrictions overall, Suff adds. However, Steve Carpenter, HR adviser, points out that, in his speech, Johnson said he expected many regions to go straight into the higher-level tiers, at least temporarily.

Can employers start taking workers off furlough and reopening their offices?

The short answer is yes, says Suff. “Employers can take staff off furlough as more businesses open from 2 December in England,” she says, adding that the tiered approach will naturally see more businesses in tier one returning to work than in the higher levels. “The job support scheme is also flexible, which means staff can work for any amount of time and be furloughed for the remainder of their contracted hours.”

But employers should take a cautious approach to reopening their offices, says Kunjan Zaveri, HR manager at TCR2, who points out that employee safety and wellbeing remains the top priority: “A well-thought out and robust transition strategy will help employers protect their business as well as ensure their staff are looked after during these difficult times.” 

Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, adds: “If a business is able to reopen from 2 December they can start bringing back employees full or part time. The amount of notice they need to give employees should be set out in the furlough agreement entered into with the employee. HMRC accepts that businesses will be affected in different ways by the tier system.”

How should employers manage the changes with employees?

A commitment to supporting people should be at the heart of any decision-making, says Carpenter, but the regional nature of the system will mean businesses need to build robust plans. “The new tier system will continue to oblige employers and employees to be open-minded about work patterns and delivery. Employers will be required to focus on outcomes, rather than how and where work is being done,” he says.

Suff adds that clear and honest communication is extremely important: “As hard as it might be given the uncertainty, staff will appreciate as much notice as possible about when they can expect to be back at work.”

Returning staff – particularly those who have been furloughed for a long time – should have the opportunity for a reinduction with their manager, Suff says, to give them the opportunity to discuss any concerns about returning to a physical workplace, and understand the health and safety procedures that have been put in place. “Employers should be adaptable and offer flexibility such as a phased return or a temporary change in working arrangements to support people wherever possible,” she says.