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Employment & Personnel - July 19th, 2021
It seems appropriate, numerically at least, that July 19th should be the date when the government has decreed that all remaining Covid-19 legal restrictions should be removed.
It seems appropriate, numerically at least, that July 19th should be the date when the government has decreed that all remaining Covid-19 legal restrictions should be removed. For most of us it has been a very long 16 months of lockdowns and other major changes to our lives forced by the pandemic.
But, as Boris Johnson and his health advisers never tire of telling us, this easing of the rules certainly doesn’t mean the risks have disappeared. In fact, the position seems to have changed from us being able to defeat Covid-19 to one in which we are all going to have to live with the disease for the foreseeable future.
What this means for employers and employees is that even though restrictions will no longer be in force there will still be a need to be mindful of risks and responsibilities.
This article aims to cover many of the issues that may be raised by employees returning to their normal places of work, continuing to work from home or combining the two in a new kind of hybrid working pattern.
No doubt things will evolve as we all get used to the new ways of working and new kinds of challenges will present themselves. But, for the time being, this is where we are.
The first step is to take a look at the specific changes that July 19th brings. Not all will have a direct effect on employers and employees, but most will.
You might expect that the furlough scheme that has been in force since the start of the pandemic to also come to an end when the other restrictions have been lifted. But, following pressure from businesses, this is remaining in place until the end of September. In July the Government contribution drops to 70% of wages for hours not worked up to a limit of £2187.50, reducing to 60% with an upper limit of £1,875 in August and September.
Employers have to continue making National Insurance and pension payments and are able to top up furlough payments up to 80% of the wage that would normally be paid, at a cap of £2,500 a month.
With the easing of restrictions, it is also likely that many businesses in sectors like hospitality may soon be able to start taking staff off furlough and prepare for their return to work.
There are likely to be many changes when it comes to returning to work, but some things remain the same.
The most important of these, for employers, is the need to provide a safe working environment as set out in the Health & Safety at Work Act. The arrival of Covid-19 into all of our lives has complicated this requirement considerably but, without legal enforcement, it is up to the individual business to decide on the precautions that will need to be taken.
A typical list of things to consider would be:
There will also be the questions to answer about everything from whether testing will be necessary, if social distancing will continue in places of work and whether screens will be required, to name just a few considerations.
Because coming back into a place of work will be a major change for employees, it would probably be a good idea to consult them about what measures they would need to be taken to feel comfortable and safe in a working environment. This would also be the most likely way to get them to comply with whatever measures are agreed.
There are a number of other considerations for employers looking to limit the numbers in at work at any one time. Perhaps shift patterns can be introduced – which might have the added benefit for some employees of allowing them to travel by public transport at less busy times of day.
For many people, the previously unthinkable situation of working from home full time has become the new normal. There have been both advantages and disadvantages of this for employers and employees alike.
For employers it has meant a reduction in the running costs of offices but perhaps less control over staff. For employees it has saved the risks, and time, involved in travelling to and from work. But many have reported feeling under pressure to work longer hours than they would have done in at their normal place of work as well as feeling disconnected form co-workers.
To look at it on the positive side, it has shown that remote working can work and that the advantages arguably outweigh the disadvantages.
It will also inevitably strengthen the argument for employees who previously asked for more flexibility to work from home but whose line managers or company policies would not allow it.
So we can expect many debates to be had on the subject. But it is important to note that just because it has been working well for 16 months, it is not any employee’s right to continue to work from home unless it is stipulated in his or her contract of employment.
Again, it will be a question of negotiation and agreement between employer and employee to reach a mutually acceptable solution. If necessary, this can be formalised by a flexible working application that should be agreed and added to a contract of employment to become binding.
If, however, an employer hasn’t taken the kinds of steps needed to create a safe working environment any employee will have the right to stay away if they believe that there is a serious and imminent risk to their health and safety by coming in to work. This underlines the importance for employers of taking all possible steps and precautions to safeguard employees as they return to work.
One final thought on the subject of working from home is that the school holidays begin a few days after July 19. So many parents would welcome the slow re-introduction of having to work out of the home, at least until the schools return in September. The fact that home-working was still successful for many people, even when home-schooling was in force, is a good argument for employers holding off making too many changes right now.
The main reason that the government has felt it is appropriate to lift restrictions has been the successful and on-going rollout of the vaccination programme. Along with its success, this has also thrown up a number of issues which need to be acknowledged and addressed as part of an employer’s rights and responsibilities.
For example, there is no way that an employer can insist on employees being vaccinated or to make it a pre-requisite for anyone applying for a job. For anyone who has not so far had a vaccination for medical or religious reasons, rejecting an application on the grounds that they are not protected against the virus could even put an employer at risk of breaking discrimination laws.
However, that’s not to say that it might not be a good idea to encourage employees to get their first or second jabs, for example by allowing paid time off to attend an appointment. Larger businesses may even be able to arrange for vaccinations to be carried out at their premises and during office hours.
Anyone coming into contact with someone suffering from Covid-19 is required to self-isolate for 10 days. For people able to work from home this is not such a problem. But employers who rely on staff being physically present it has been reported as causing major disruption. This has affected every kind of organisation from the NHS to Heathrow Airport where flights were reported to have been seriously delayed on July 12th due to staff absences.
The good news is that from August 16th anyone who has received two doses of the vaccine will no longer need to self-isolate even if alerted that they have been in contact with an infected person. So, for employers, it really does make good sense to do everything they can to encourage as many staff as possible to get both jabs.
The removal of restrictions will also coincide with the peak holiday season. Although the controls on foreign travel are a separate matter to the other freedoms that are being restored, these will still have implications - and there is one major change that will be introduced on July 19th.
This is that anyone who has been double-vaccinated at least 14 days before departure to an amber list country will not have to quarantine on their return.
But it is important for businesses to make it clear what their policy will be for employees who chose to travel to these countries and who do need to quarantine when they get back to the UK. Again, this could be an area of negotiation to decide whether it will need to be taken as paid or unpaid leave.
It is still also possible for countries to move into a higher risk zone at very short notice, just as Portugal did in in early June when it joined the amber list from the green. So it should also be made clear to staff about company policy if this should happen again when they are on holiday in an affected country and they find themselves having to quarantine unexpectedly when they get home.
After a turbulent and difficult 16 months for many businesses, many will be keen to alter the way that they work as things return to being closer to normal. So this could be seen as a good opportunity to make changes like altering people’s work patterns and even rearranging the layout of workplaces. In fact, it might be the best time of all to make these kinds of changes.
On a slightly less positive note, as we head towards the end of the furlough period many businesses will also start having to seriously review their staffing levels and make some unavoidable redundancies.
Even though these are times that are far from ordinary, employers will still need to follow the standard procedures in order to ensure fair decisions are made about which particular roles are to be made redundant. Employees should also be made fully aware of their rights and involved in the process as much as possible.
One of the trickiest aspects of the easing of restrictions is going to be need for employers and employees to make what have been described as “informed decisions” about what measures they want to continue to have in place. With plenty of potential for misunderstandings to occur, a good dialogue is going to be essential.
It might also be worthwhile for everyone to have access to employment law experts like Eatons, as we may be able to clarify matters, from a legal perspective at least.
This may well be a challenging period ahead, but one which may help both some employers and employees emerge in a better position overall. If you feel that we can help in any way on the journey, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.