The Government has recently announced the end of ‘Plan B’ measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in England. This means that office workers are no longer being asked to work from home and from 27 January face coverings will no longer be required (although they are suggested in crowded and enclosed spaces with people who do not regularly meet). Additionally, the NHS COVID Pass will no longer be required by law in certain venues (but can be used by businesses on a voluntary basis). All businesses must continue to follow the Government’s guidance on working safely to minimise the risks of COVID-19 in their workplace (such as completing risk assessments, accommodating workers to self-isolate when required, and ensuring workplaces are well ventilated).
Given the changes to workplace rules, we’ve set out below some key tips around making sure your workplace is safe when reopening and welcoming employees back to the office.
1. Keep up to date with self-isolation rules
Make sure you keep up to date with the latest self-isolation rules and do not encourage any staff member who is meant to be self-isolating to come into work. Employers who knowingly force or allow staff who should be self-isolating to come into the workplace could face fines of up to £10,000. Self-isolation rules are subject to change quickly, so you should ensure you keep up to date with the current rules and how they apply to your staff.
2. Consider how you will deal with staff who are required to self-isolate
You must ensure that staff who’ve been required to self-isolate do not come into the workplace; your business could be fined if you force or allow such staff to come in. If your staff cannot work from home while they are self-isolating, you could consider allowing them to take the time as annual or unpaid leave, or they may be eligible to receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). The Government has re-opened its Coronavirus SSP Rebate Scheme, which will reimburse small employers for up to two weeks’ worth of SSP per employee for coronavirus related absences on or after 21 December 2021. You can find more guidance about coronavirus related sickness absences in our Q&A on Sickness absence.
Bear in mind that if you have an enhanced sick pay policy, your staff may also be eligible for enhanced sick pay whilst they are self-isolating and you should ensure you act in accordance with whatever your policy says.
3. Conduct a COVID-19 health and safety risk assessment and share the results with your workforce
All UK businesses are required to carry out a health and safety risk assessment, taking into account COVID-19 risks, before re-opening. Use our template COVID-19 risk assessment to conduct a specific COVID-19 risk assessment. Note this does not replace your other health and safety obligations (eg to conduct general risk assessments at your workplace).
You should consult with health and safety representatives from your workforce while completing your risk assessment, and share the results with your workforce. If you have 50 or more employees, you should publish your risk assessment on your company’s website. Make sure you keep proper records; if you have 5 or more employees, you must keep a written record of your risk assessment, but it is good practice to do so even if you have fewer employees.
See Health and safety when returning to work during coronavirus for further guidance on completing your COVID-19 risk assessment.
4. Put COVID-19 risk mitigation measures in place
After you have completed your COVID-19 risk assessment, you must ensure you put in place the risk mitigation measures that you have identified. For example, ways to minimise COVID-19 risks include ensuring the workplace is well ventilated and implementing comprehensive hygiene and cleaning measures.
You may have to take extra precautions to protect staff who are more vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus; including considering any advice their doctor has given them about minimising their risks. See Health and safety when returning to work during coronavirus for further guidance.
5. Communicate with your staff about your plans
Whilst Government guidance asking office workers to work from home was removed fairly abruptly, it’s a good idea for you to communicate properly with staff (including those on leave) about your own plans to return and to give them as much notice as possible. Some of your staff may have concerns about heading back into the workplace (for example, because they are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19), whereas others may not be able to immediately return (for example, because they need to change their childcare arrangements).
You should listen to your staff members’ concerns and consider how you can accommodate them; this may include considering flexible working arrangements (such as hybrid working), either on a short-term or long-term basis, or considering staggering start and finishing times so your staff can avoid travelling at peak times. Remember that you must not disriminate against any of your staff on the basis of a protected characteristic (eg their age, sex, pregnancy etc) when making your decisions. In particular, you may need to make reasonable adjustments for disabled members of staff to ensure that they can continue to work safely.
Ultimately, if you are unable to reach a suitable compromise with staff who refuse to come back into the workplace, it is open to you to take disciplinary action.
Staying up to date and reviewing your processes
Welcoming your staff back to the office is an exciting time, and the Government is encouraging businesses to do so. However, you must take actions to mitigate COVID-19 risks in the workplace, and ensure you keep up to date with any changes to Government guidance. Review your risk assessments regularly to ensure you are taking all reasonable steps to protect your staff from COVID-19, and be patient with any staff members who are struggling with their return to the workplace, whether due to health concerns and/or sudden changes to their routine. It’s best practice to work together with your staff to minimise risks to their health and safety, and check in with them regularly to determine whether any further changes should be made.
Marion joined Sparqa Legal as a Senior Legal Editor in 2018. She previously worked as a corporate/commercial lawyer for five years at one of New Zealand’s leading law firms, Kensington Swan (now Dentons Kensington Swan), and as an in-house legal consultant for a UK tech company. Marion regularly writes for Sparqa’s blog, contributing across its commercial, IP and health and safety law content.