What do the government’s new reopening guidelines mean for employers?

24 Jun 2020 By Francis Churchill

Following yesterday’s announcement that more businesses can reopen with ‘one metre plus’ social distancing, People Management explores the practicalities

The prime minister has announced the biggest relaxation of restrictions on businesses since the lockdown came into effect more than three months ago.

From 4 July, the majority of companies – with a few notable exceptions – will be allowed to open again. Pubs will be allowed to serve clients both indoors and outdoors; restaurants will be able to provide limited table service; and barbers and hairdressers will be able to reopen.

All of this has been aided by a relaxation of the two-metre social distance rule, which is being replaced by a new ‘one metre plus’ regulation that asks people to stay two metres apart where possible, but allows that to be taken down to at least one metre where this is not possible – an apparent concession to concerns that hospitality venues would not be able to cope with the stricter distancing rules.

Alongside the announcement, the government has published more guidance for employers in the affected sectors around reopening safely – defined as hotel and guest accommodation; restaurants, bars and pubs; the ‘visitor economy’, which includes indoor and outdoor attractions, business events and consumer shows; and ‘close contact services’ including hairdressers.

However, while the news has been welcomed by many, healthcare officials have already warned of the risk of a second spike of the disease. In an open letter in the British Medical Journal, more than a dozen medical experts said the “available evidence indicates that local flare-ups are increasingly likely and a second wave a real risk”.

With this in mind, People Management takes a look at what the new guidance advises employers do to keep staff and customers safe:

Which businesses can reopen?

Restaurants and pubs will be able to reopen; however, all indoor spaces will be table seating only and the guidance advises “minimal staff and customer contact”. People will be able to stay overnight in hotels, bed and breakfasts and campsites, and most leisure facilities and tourist attractions – including playgrounds, outdoor gyms, cinemas, museums and theme parks – will be allowed to reopen “if they can do so safely”. Theatres and music halls will be able to reopen, but will not be allowed to hold live performances.

Some ‘close contact services’ including hairdressers will be allowed to reopen, but others such as nightclubs, indoor gyms, swimming pools, spas and nail bars will remain closed.

What are the rules on social distancing?

Where the two-metre social distancing rules are not possible, this can be relaxed down to ‘one metre plus’ as long as additional steps to mitigate the risk of transmission are taken. These include avoiding face-to-face seating; reducing the number of people in enclosed spaces; using protective screens and face coverings; improving ventilation; and keeping staff in set work teams.

The relaxation of this rule will be met with “a sigh of relief” not just for the hospitality sector, but also the construction, manufacturing and engineering sectors, says Ged Mason, CEO of the Morson Group, all of which will be able to bring more people back to site and work environments and “begin to see normality creep back into their working lives”.

However, Elliott Kenton, a specialist in health and safety law at Fieldfisher, says there is a “question about consistency” between the ‘one metre plus’ rule and the detailed guidelines on making workplaces ‘Covid secure’ published by the government in May. “The [May] guidelines, which we understand remain applicable to workplaces, advocate social distancing control measures to achieve a two-metre 'safe' distance,” he says.

Kenton adds that the older guidance still stipulates that “where a two-metre distance is not possible, careful assessment is needed as to whether that business activity should take place at all and, if it must, that transmission risk must be managed by other infection control measures”.

What additional staff protections are required?

Much of the guidance released yesterday and this morning is similar to the guidance released in May. Employers should use screens to protect staff from customers, keep workers in fixed work groups to reduce mixing, try and reduce movement around places of work or job rotation, stagger shift times and increase the amount of cleaning that happens in the place of work.

There are some specific recommendations for those in ‘close contact services’ such as hairdressing – employees should have individual workstations, wear a visor where a barrier isn’t feasible and ask customers to arrive at their allotted appointment times to avoid overlaps.

In a similar vein, hospitality venues including bars and restaurants will be restricted to table service indoors, with the guidance suggesting businesses consider how customers and staff will move around venues while maintaining a social distance and introduce contactless methods of ordering, paying or – in the case of hotels – checking in and out where possible. It also advises that staff should change into uniforms onsite and that the employer bulk washes uniforms rather than ask employees to individually wash them at home.

“Businesses should not grow complacent about the prevalence of the disease,” says Kenton. He warns that while the government advice on coronavirus is likely to change, “businesses' obligations to protect the health and safety of their staff and prevent the spread of infection are likely to remain static, and the Health and Safety Executive is expected to remain vigilant to ensure Covid-secure practices are strictly observed".

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