Legal

What does the government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy mean for employers?

14 May 2020 By Catherine Taylor and Mel Lane

Catherine Taylor and Mel Lane explain how the gradual easing of lockdown measures will affect firms, including social distancing and risk assessments

The government has published ‘Our plan to rebuild: the UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy‘ along with eight new guides covering a range of different types of workplace. 

The guides set out practical considerations for businesses centred around five key points which the government has said should be implemented as soon as it is practical. 

The five key points around which all the guides are based are as follows:

  • All reasonable steps should be taken by employers to help staff work from home. If they cannot work from home, the government has now clearly said they should return to work. Staff should speak to their employer about when their workplace will reopen.
  • Employers should carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions to establish what guidelines to put in place. If possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website and the government expects all businesses with over 50 employees to do so.
  • Two metre social distancing should be maintained by employers wherever possible by measures such as re-designing workspaces, staggering start times and creating one-way walk-throughs.
  • Transmission risk should be managed where people cannot be two metres apart with employers looking into putting barriers in shared spaces, introducing shift patterns, or creating fixed teams to minimise the number of people in contact with one another, or facing each other.
  • Cleaning processes should be reinforced with workplaces cleaned more frequently, particularly high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers should also be provided by employers at entry and exit points.

The government expects a high level of engagement between employers and trade unions and/or workers directly especially in relation to the health and safety measures that will be implemented including consultation with health and safety representatives selected by recognised trade union(s) or the workforce itself

The government is clear that workers should not be forced into an unsafe workplace but at the same time the guides recognise that the obligation on employers is only to do everything reasonably practicable to minimise risks. The government directs employees to complain to their local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive where they are concerned that social distancing measures are not sufficient, and has increased the budget of the Health and Safety Executive by 10 per cent to support employers and deal with complaints that are made. 

Face coverings continue to receive much comment. The plan provides that they should be worn in enclosed public spaces where social distancing is not possible or where you are more likely to come into contact with people you do not normally meet. The guides state that the benefit of face coverings is marginal and that employers should not rely on face coverings to address health and safety risk but consider other measures including al fresco meetings and fixed teams to keep contact with the same people. Interestingly, the guides do not cover the obligation on employees to self-report virus symptoms or exposure to their employer, or any kind of testing in the workplace.

Finally, these latest publications are in the form of guides rather than regulation and are expressly stated to be non-statutory. The guides do not replace or supersede the existing employment law and other legal obligations to which employers continue to be subject including under the Equalities Act. As a result, employers should comply with contractual obligations when varying terms and conditions, consult collectively where appropriate and consider discrimination risks when designing and implementing the new normal.

Catherine Taylor and Mel Lane are partners in the employment team at CMS

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