Last week, the UK Government began to ease lockdown restrictions, a process likely to be followed soon by the Scottish Government. Business focus is now firmly on the return to work, in particular complying with the welter of new regulation and guidance that has arrived since March and which remains likely to be a feature of working life for the foreseeable future.

In many ways the social care sector has had a different Covid experience from most businesses. Operators across all sub-sectors – care homes, home care and supported living agencies and retirement villages - have largely continued to operate throughout the pandemic. However many will have changed their methods of working and will have ceased providing some services, by way of example  care homes and retirement villages will have closed their catering and leisure facilities. Separately for all operators much of the back office function will currently be being carried on by employees working from home, as opposed to "on site".

Whilst it is not immediately clear when restaurant and leisure facilities will be opened up again, any “back to work” plans for dormant parts of a business will need to comply not only with the Coronavirus Regulations and associated guidance, but also existing Health and Safety legislation. This will take time and thought, and it is advisable that companies in the social care sector commence the preparatory work now.

The UK Government has now produced eight separate pieces of guidance covering a range of sectors: 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; and vehicles   

Whilst as can be seen none address the provision of care itself, one or more will have application to other functions of a healthcare sector business. For those not in England familiarity with the guidance is worthwhile not least as it is likely to be used as a precedent for equivalent guidance from devolved administrations.

THINKING ABOUT AND MANAGING RISK

It's worth prefacing this analysis by making the point that this is non statutory guidance, and does not replace existing obligations in law under health and safety legislation. Employers continue to have a legal responsibility to protect workers and others from risk to their health and safety. Emphasising this point the guidance states that employers should carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment.

The assessment should involve consultation with employees concerning every aspect of the businesses' operations affected by the risk from coronavirus. From that should flow controls designed to eliminate or minimise the risk of transmitting or contracting the virus. 

In effect, the guidance assists that process by provision of recommended measures. 

WHO SHOULD GO TO WORK

The guidance remains that everyone should work from home, unless they cannot work from home. Employers are advised to consider if a worker is needed in the workplace. Each piece of guidance sets out examples of what might amount to "needed" in that particular work area.

Across all of the guidance, the Government recommends that business consider planning for minimum numbers and taking particular measures to protect those at higher risk. Looking away from on-site working for a moment those working remotely should be provided with equipment to allow them to do so safely and effectively, and steps should be taken to monitor their health and welfare. 

SOCIAL DISTANCING AT WORK

The guide sets out detailed actions to maintain 2m social distancing wherever possible (it should be noted though that this doesn't apply to carers and the person assisted by the carer). To accommodate that considerations should include increased entry points, staggered arrival and departure times, use of markings, one way flows through buildings, and policies for "high traffic" areas such as lifts or corridors. Where social distancing cannot be maintained in full each guidance documents addresses mitigations that might be used including: reducing activity time; use of screens; use of fixed teams; and avoiding face to face working.

Where visitors require to attend a workplace this should be recorded and take place during specified times. Clear guidance on social distancing should be provided to visitors.      

For catering facilities, preventative measures also include minimising access to areas with limited space, e.g. walk-in pantries, and minimising contact at handover points between staff working in different areas, e.g. kitchen, front of house. 

For workers visiting people's homes – and this guidance would be relevant to carers employed by home care and supported living operators – the guidance suggests allocating the same workers to a household where jobs are repetitive.  It is also recommended that workers bring their own food and drink to households and that breaks should be taken outside, where possible. Where workers are required to work together, journeys should be with the same individuals, good ventilation should be maintained by keeping windows open and vehicles should be regularly cleaned. 

WORKPLACES AND STATIONS

For those in "back office" functions workstations should maintain social distancing with occupancy levels and markings used to support this. Where social distancing is not possible, a number of mitigations should be considered such as avoiding face to face working, and the use of screens.

Work spaces should also be assigned to individuals where possible. Hot desking should be avoided, but if there has to be shared use of a work space there should be thorough cleaning of the space and the equipment between users. 

CLEANING AND SANITISING THE WORKPLACE

The guide considers how to ensure that a site or location that has been closed is clean and ready to restart. It also provides considerations on: how to keep the workplace clean and prevent transmission including by frequent cleaning of work areas and limiting or restricting use of high touch items; how to ensure the highest hygiene standards are operated in kitchen areas; how to help everyone keep good hygiene, including through provision of hand sanitisers in multiple locations, enhanced cleaning, more waste facilities and more frequent collection; how to minimise the risk of transmission in changing rooms and showers; and how to reduce transmission through contact with objects that come into the workplace. 

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT (PPE) AND FACE COVERINGS

The rules on wearing PPE for carers is well known so the guidance would relate to other employees in the workplace. Where workers are already using PPE to protect against non-COVID-19 risks, they should continue to do so - additional PPE beyond what is usually worn is not beneficial. Workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19 in most circumstances. Wearing a face covering may be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure. Wearing a face covering is optional and is not required by law, including in the workplace. Employers should support their workers in using face coverings safely if they choose to wear one.

MANAGING YOUR WORKFORCE

The guide advises on how to change the way work is organised to create distinct groups and reduce the number of contacts each worker has including the use of shift patterns and working groups and during work related travel. It deals with communications and training including when returning to work and ongoing communications and signage to make sure all are kept up to date with safety measures.

INBOUND AND OUTBOUND GOODS

The guide considers how to maintain social distancing and avoid surface transmission when goods enter and leave the site.

Where HSE identifies employers who are not complying with guidance to control public health risks, they will consider taking a range of actions to improve control of workplace risks including enforcement. 

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article please do get in touch.

Key Contacts

Tom Speirs

Tom Speirs

Partner, Corporate Lending and Borrowing
Edinburgh

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Lisa McNeill

Lisa McNeill

Associate, Dispute Resolution
Edinburgh, UK

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