On 5 July the Prime Minister held a Downing Street briefing and made an announcement about an announcement.
The final stage in the Government's "road map" for England is currently set for 19 July with a formal announcement due on 12 July.We know the headlines that most restrictions will be eased but there was a distinct lack of granularity. Businesses, however, need hard information and detail to plot a route through the likely changes and the combination of emergency laws and regulations and peremptory "guidance" throughout 2020 into this year has confused almost everyone.
So what changes do we expect for businesses from 19 July?
First we do not expect a further postponement of Step 4.
Second we expect that (with perhaps one exception) current emergency regulations will be allowed to expire on 31 July. Currently regulations cover self-isolation, face coverings, the provision of contact details in some settings, meetings and gatherings and restrictions on how businesses can operate. We expect local authorities to retain legal powers to require premises to close in a certain locality as part of controlling outbreaks until the end of September.
What the government describes as giving people the ability to make personal decisions about risk of course has huge implications for employers who have to consider the workforce as a whole with different risk tolerance or aversion between different employees inevitable, particularly during the summer until the initial vaccine programme is complete but even beyond. With legal restrictions relaxed there will be revised guidance and a major review of the "Working Safely" guidance across sectors expected to be published on or after 13 July but before Step 4 takes effect. That is a very short timeframe for employers to make decisions about adjustments. Employers will recognise the shift from public health emergency (the Government's responsibility) to managing endemic workplace risk (employers' responsibility) with a new focus on measures to protect employees and challenges about a return to some workplaces and the adequacy of measures in place. Employers will want to be cautious in easing the policies of the past year but progressing towards less restricted operations. For example the Social Distancing Review published on 6 July also recommends shortening the duration of meetings, reducing contacts and even meeting outdoors.
At this stage we expect to see at least the following within any revised guidance (and advise employers to consider retaining):-
- Meeting in well-ventilated areas where possible, such as outdoors or indoors with windows open
- Wearing a face covering where in contact with people not met regularly in enclosed and crowded spaces
- Washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitiser regularly throughout the day. Personal hygiene measures to be supported by a continuing premises cleaning regime
- Staying at home if unwell, to reduce the risk of passing on other illnesses
- Considering individual risks, such as clinical vulnerabilities and vaccination status.
We expect asymptomatic testing to remain encouraged though many employers will make a judgement call if there is no central funding available.
Employers can review risk assessments now. We recommend that these reviews should aim to replace "Covid-19 risk assessments" with workplace risk assessments which include the virus as a significant risk but not the predominant risk.