On 22nd February 2021, Boris Johnson provided a Spring announcement which included his four-point roadmap out of the UK’s third national lockdown. The Government has also released a 68-page document titled: ‘COVID-19 Response Spring 21’ (“Government Response”). What does this update mean for employers and what impact does it have on employment? Warren Moores discusses.
The Current Law
The current law is “you may only leave your home for work if you cannot reasonably work from home”.
The word ‘reasonably’ is already relatively subjective, meaning employers need to carefully assess whether it is ‘reasonable’ to require someone to attend the office. This often means taking a rounded viewpoint of the situation considering the employee’s ability to do their job from home. Practically, there is often far more to consider such as IT infrastructure, childcare responsibilities and the health and wellbeing of employees, some of whom want to be in the office whereas others may be more apprehensive.
A lot of employers are in a position where they do not believe particular employees can work from home effectively, but are doing so as a short-term measure. Other employers have already made the decision that they won’t be returning to the office in the foreseeable future or even at all.
Unfortunately, the Government Response indicates that, for those employers hoping for a partial or full return to the office, this appears to be highly unlikely in the short term.
What Is the Government Response?
In each of the first three steps announced in the plan (8/29 March ,12 April and 17 May), the Government Response indicates that we can expect the rules to stay the same:
Step 1 – “As before, people can leave home for work if they cannot work from home and to escape illness, injury or risk of harm, including domestic abuse.
Step 2 – “People should continue to work from home where they can”
Step 3 – “The Government will continue to advise the public to work from home where they can.”
There is different wording at each step, and it appears the guidance will not change but this is by no means certain. It would have been far more useful to employers if the Government simply stated that the current guidance on working from home will remain unchanged during these periods if that was its plan. Obviously, this may not be the plan or the Government may wish to be vague enough to ensure there is scope amend the current wording if it so chooses.
Step 4 is due to commence no earlier than 21 June 2021. With an intention at this stage to “remove all legal limits on social contact” it seems realistic by this stage that the law will change in some form.
At this stage, Step 4 feels a very long way away. The Government response reflects this – indicating what Step 4 will look like will depend on the progress of previous steps and various other factors. There is an acceptance that “social distancing is difficult and damaging for businesses and, as a result, it is important to return to as near to normal as quickly as possible”. On the back of this, the Government Response states that it will be reviewing the social distancing measures ahead of Step 4 and “this review will also inform guidance on working from home – people should continue to work from home where they can until this review is complete”.
Therefore, the Government’s upcoming review on social distancing will be pivotal in how it approaches any return to work and what that will look like. The review will also look at other long-term measures which have been put in place, such as face masks and the ongoing use of them.
For those hoping to return to the office, the latest announcement and Government Response should give employers and employees confidence that there is a plan towards it.
For more guidance on COVID-19 in the workplace or if you are facing issues related to employment within your business, please contact Warren Moores, Associate, on 0161 475 1225 or email [email protected].