COVID-19 and the workplace: Plan to rebuild

On Monday 11 May 2020, after 7 weeks of effective ‘lockdown’ for much of the UK’s way of life and business, the Government announced it’s Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy.

This document (see link below) provides a framework for how the next phase (phase 2: smarter controls) will gradually introduce steps with the aim of returning the UK to a semblance of ‘new normal’ towards the end of the summer. These steps provide a pathway for increasing social contact, opening-up business and commerce together with returning children to school. The document refers to further Covid-19 secure guidelines that were compiled with input from Local Authorities, Trade Unions, Health and Safety Executive and Public Health England that will provide industry specific safety advice.

Following release of the main guidance, the Government published Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) which contains 8 industry specific guidelines (see link below). This guidance aims to help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The guidance is categorised into the following areas (although many businesses will overlap a number of categories):

  • Construction and other outdoor work
  • Factories, plants and warehouses
  • Labs and research facilities
  • Offices and contact centres
  • Other people’s homes
  • Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery
  • Shops and branches
  • Vehicles

These are not statutory guidelines but are intended to be a framework for employers to use to as a tool to asses when to re-open and how to operate their businesses in the current situation. Risk assessments are key to this process and the Health and Safety Executive has provided further guidance on this (see below).

It is important to note that this guidance sits alongside existing legislation and particularly non-discrimination and reasonable adjustment obligations for those with a disability (Equality Act 2010) and health and safety requirements.

The furlough scheme, as you probably know, is the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and has been a lifeline for businesses and employees alike. There has been huge take-up of the scheme which allows employers to place staff on ‘furlough leave’ with Government paying 80% of their wages (up to a £2,500 per month cap). HMRC, which administers the scheme, reported that the Government is currently paying the wages of around a quarter of all employees at a cost of £14bn a month).

The scheme, which started on 23 March 2020, was initially intended to end on 31 May 2020, but was then extended until the end of June 2020. On 12 May 2020, the Government announced that the scheme will be extended further until 31 October 2020; although the substance of the scheme will change during this period.

Until 31 July 2020 nothing will change (employees will still be paid 80% of their salary (up to the cap) and must not work for their employer). However, from 1 August 2020 until 31 October 2020 the scheme will become more flexible, with employers expected to share the financial burden, enabling employees to work for their employers on a part-time basis. We await further details of the nature of the split and how this will work in practice.

Opportunities and challenges: So, while we are embarking on the road to a return to normality, it’s clear it won’t be for some time and there will be opportunities and challenges along the way.

The Government has made it clear that employees should continue to work from home where at all possible for the foreseeable future. It is also likely that, even when it is possible to return to their place of work, many employees may wish to continue working from home. Although certainly more popular in recent years, before coronavirus, working from home was still far from the norm for most employees.

Working from home can have benefits and challenges for both employees and employers. To name just a few: flexibility, financial, engagement, performance, management. Trust and working together is the key to make the arrangement work. Also, while a working from home policy is certainly advisable, existing HR processes and procedures (e.g. performance management, capability, disciplinary, grievances etc) are perfectly adequate to manage any challenges that should arise.

There will be separate challenges where there is difference in perception between employees and employers about the readiness to return to the normal working environment. These will need to be managed consistently and sensitively.

Periods of uncertainly and economic downturn do, sadly, lead to potential redundancies. Hopefully, the furlough scheme will limit these as much as possible but it is clear redundancies will be unavoidable. Normal principles of employee protection (unfair dismissal, notice, redundancy pay etc) will continue to apply, including to employees on furlough. Even in these unusual times, it is crucially important that employers follow the correct procedures to avoid liability.

Finally, for now, the flexibility envisaged by the ongoing furlough support is new way of working not attempted, and certainly not on this scale, before. While the end result should assist in long-term economic recovery and job security, there will undoubtedly be practical challenges along the way.

So, on this unchartered road to recovery, there will be opportunities and challenges for employers and employees alike. Here at Leeds Day LLP we have the tools to assist, guide and support you in this. Therefore, if you need any support, now or in the future, please do not hesitate to contact our employment law/ HR specialist Rebecca Ryan (email Becky or call directly on 01480 442040).

Useful links

Gov.UK - Our plan to Rebuild the UK

Gov.UK: Guidance on Safely Working During Coronavirus Risk Assessment

Gov.UK: News - Furlough Scheme Extended

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