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Should you be cancelling your Christmas party this year?

7 Dec 2021 By Jasmine Urquhart

After last year’s festive flop, companies are keener than ever to have a proper get-together. But with the Omicron variant threatening to scupper plans, what are the health, safety and legal risks of doing so?

As this year’s party season rolls around, many employers will be keen to reward their staff with a proper Christmas bash. But with infection rates creeping back up, a new variant threatening to cause havoc and the government toying with the idea of introducing plan B restrictions in England, companies are divided on whether or not to go ahead with their much-anticipated Christmas plans. Google, Accenture, Facebook and EY are among the firms to have already ruled out an in-person party: disappointing news for those hoping for a ‘normal’ Christmas. 

Thankfully, health and safety expert Ryan Exley, from the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), can assuage concerns. Companies committed to hosting in-person celebrations can take measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission, he says, including hosting their party outdoors. “Outside space is known to be safer since it isn’t a contained area, whereas there’s a higher chance of contracting Covid inside,” he says.

But what if the weather outside is frightful? Outside events won’t be to everyone’s taste during the winter months, and realistically many firms are likely to go ahead with an indoor event anyway. In this case, Exley recommends firms “increase ventilation, complete testing prior to the event, social distance, use face coverings and try to keep the numbers to a minimum”. However, he says, a virtual gathering is the only way to have a party “completely free of Covid risk”, and employers must do a risk assessment whatever route they choose to see whether it is safe enough to go ahead.

At least from a legal point of view, the risks of an in-person Christmas party can be low if managed properly. Manuela de Castro, an employment solicitor at Keystone Law, says firms that take the necessary steps to keep staff safe and communicate their policies well may avoid being subject to claims from employees in the event of an outbreak. “In any event, it would be very difficult for an employee to prove that they caught Covid-19 at the Christmas party itself,” she said.

Lateral flow testing can be made mandatory for employees attending an in-person event, and a number of recent tribunal decisions – including Rodgers v Leeds Laser Cutting (2021) and Accattatis v Fortuna Group (2021) among others – suggest employers have “considerable discretion” over implementation of Covid-19 safety measures, which might extend to a requirement to be double-jabbed – although lawyers warn that employees can potentially object to getting the jab on religious grounds or because of a philosophical belief, so employers need to tread carefully.

As for enforced social distancing, this is harder to implement; while employers can “set the framework for a Covid-safe event by reminding employees about the need to social distance”, they do not have the power to enforce such measures between adults who know the risk, says de Castro. “Employers should, however, bear in mind that employees may overindulge even more than usual this year, after nearly two years of social distancing,” she says, recommending employers remind staff that a party is still an extension of the workplace, and of the importance of general good conduct.

Perhaps most importantly, says Michelle Last, employment law partner at Keystone Law: “Knowing that the risk of catching Covid-19 is lowered should also make for a more enjoyable Christmas party for those attending.”

So the post-Covid Christmas party might happen after all – but that doesn’t mean the winter months are all wrapped up. Employers need to take a vigilant approach to health and safety at work throughout the colder months, says Exley. “Employers should seek to follow a prevention-first approach and implement control strategies that enable safe and healthy workplaces and activities,” he says. But whether this means employers encourage the uptake of booster jabs depends on many factors; employers must “ensure any medical concerns are advised on by competent people,” Exley says. “If an employee does refuse the vaccine, the risk assessment must be reviewed to determine whether further control measures are required.”

De Castro says that under the Health and Safety Act 1974, employers have a legal duty to do “whatever is reasonably practicable” to provide a safe and healthy place of work. Under current government guidance, this might mean temperature checks at the door, encouraging the use of masks and providing antibacterial disinfectant where possible.

But if the government’s plan B were to go ahead in England – which would bring the country more in line with the current, more stringent rules in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – stricter measures such as indoor mask-wearing would become compulsory. It would also see a return to enforced social distancing, regular hand washing and, for many employers, asking employees to work from home where possible. In anticipation of this, companies need to regularly review their risk assessments and inform employees of any potential changes in good time, Last and de Castro say.

As the prospect of yet another bleak winter looms, the appetite for a pre-Christmas celebration has never been bigger. But organisations do need to tread carefully: health and safety always comes first.

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