We have now heard what the Prime Minister said on 10th May about the next steps and the challenges ahead in his address to the nation and the document entitled “Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s Covid-19 recovery Strategy that was published the following afternoon.
In it they have acknowledged that it is not a short-term crisis and that the country cannot afford to make drastic changes to its current lockdown approach. But they understand the need to get the economy moving again to address the financial, physical and mental health of the UK’s citizens. But Boris’ statement has caused some confusion for furloughed staff thinking that they must return to work immediately. So, what does it really mean for employers?
The Government has said that their aim is, “to return life to as close to normal as possible for as many people as possible as fast and fairly as possible in a way that avoids a new epidemic, minimises lives lost and maximises health, economic and social outcomes.”
They recognised that those who show symptoms however mild must continue to self-isolate and that quarantine rules will still apply, but will try to put in place better testing regimes so that people will know whether they are or are not infected. But when it comes to work, they are introducing a phased return such that from Wednesday 13th May:
• For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible.
o This is to minimise the number of social contracts across the country and minimise transmission of the virus. It will also keep the pressure off public transport and the risk of crowding in public places.
• All Workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open (although they should avoid public transport if possible).
o This is the part of the plan that has confused and worried people. The Government has said that in some sectors it is not possible to work from home – e.g. construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, food production and scientific laboratory research. To be fair, some of these sectors have been operating to a degree already, but the government has specifically reiterated the exclusion of workplaces such as hospitality and non-essential retail which must remain closed for the time being.
Clearly if you run a business that is not operating at full capacity and has staff asking if they must now return to work, that will depend on you and whether you have sufficient work for them. If they are furloughed, then take time to plan how you start to bring people back in – but there is no rush. It is better to take your time to reassure people that your workplace meets the new “Covid-19 Secure” guidelines. The updated ones were published on Monday night (see https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19
). Look at the ones that are applicable to your business and work with your staff to establish ways of implementing the guidance so that your employees can work safely. They include items such as staggering work hours; adjusting workstations to ensure social distancing; provision of additional hand washing facilities; making adjustments for access to social areas such as kitchens; wearing face-coverings or providing PPE etc. It also provides you with a statement you can give to staff to describe what you have done.
When you are ready to ask people to come back into work, you should give them notice of the end of their furlough period (preferably at least 48 hours to allow them time to make arrangements); give them the opportunity to speak to you if they have ongoing concerns – e.g. they cannot get to work because they normally car-share and this is now not allowed; or perhaps they still have childcare responsibilities because the schools are not open yet. Be sensitive to their concerns and make adjustments where possible, but make sure you set out exactly what health, safety and welfare arrangements you are putting in place so that you can reassure them and their families that you are doing everything possible to protect them and that therefore it is reasonable for you to expect them to return.
Some staff may quote Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act at you about not returning to work because they have a belief that it is unsafe to return (see https://cheringtonhr.com/news/571
) You may need to make some further adjustments, but setting out calmly what you have done and why you think that you reasonably think that therefore it is safe to return should provide you with some defence should they make a claim that they have been treated detrimentally as a consequence.
More information will be provided on the Cherington HR website regarding further developments and how they impact on employers as it is made available and the full Plan to Rebuild strategy document can be found at https://bit.ly/3co8riJ