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England’s back-to-work guidance “a recipe for chaos and rising infections”
14/07/2021
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People with face masks on Regent Street

New UK government guidance designed to replace legal covid restrictions, set to be lifted on 19 July and allowing all businesses to reopen and people to return to their traditional workplaces, have been described as a recipe for chaos and the cause of confusion among business leaders.

The working safely guidance published on 14 July provides advice for employers in different sectors on sensible precautions businesses can take to manage risk and support their staff and customers.

Businesses are required to carry out a health and safety risk assessment, including the risk of covid-19, and to take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified.

Social distancing guidance will no longer apply in business premises and the government is no longer instructing people to work from home, allowing employers to plan for a gradual return to workplaces over the summer. The move comes as covid infections continue to rise throughout the country.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady was critical of the new back-to-work safety guidelines, describing them as “a recipe for chaos and rising infections”.

“They have been published without proper consultation with unions or employers, just two full working days before restrictions end on Monday,” she said. “Instead of providing clear and consistent guidance on how to keep staff safe at work, the government is abandoning workers and employers.

“As infection rates surge, every employer must by law carry out a thorough risk assessment and take action to keep their workers safe. But these inadequate guidelines will leave many employers with more questions than answers and worried about their liability if they get things wrong.”

Although face coverings are no longer required in offices and shops, the government still “expects and recommends that people continue to wear a face covering in crowded, enclosed spaces”.

On the topic of face coverings, O’Grady added: “Wearing face coverings should remain a legal requirement on public transport and in shops – it is not a matter of ‘personal responsibility’, nor should it be left to individual employers to decide.

“Workplace safety rules must protect shop workers, bus drivers, and others working in public settings.”  

Dr Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said a “series of mixed messages and patchwork requirements” from the government dampened enthusiasm within the business community for the much-heralded return to work.

“Return to work or continue to stay at home. Throw away your masks or continue to wear them. Today’s long-awaited guidance from government has done little to dispel that confusion,” he said.

“Whilst it is right that companies should be allowed to take decisions based on their unique circumstances, it is vital that government provides businesses with best practice in developing their own policies.

“However, business leaders are understandably confused as to the legal status that this guidance has and are concerned about vulnerability under health and safety legislation, as well as the validity of their insurance.”

Barker challenged the government to inspire confidence amongst the country’s businesses and workforce so “we can all begin to return to work safely. Today’s series of rather obvious statements does little or nothing to that end.”

Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses are asking questions about whether they will be held liable should they make changes to the way they operate from next Monday.

“Companies now have just five days to make this judgement call and effectively communicate it to their staff and customers,” she said. “This is a tight turnaround, but with cases continuing to rise, we hope the public will understand the need to stick to the covid safety rules put in place at each individual location.”

Although most covid restrictions are due to end on 19 July, planned changes to self-isolation rules will not end until 16 August and only for under-18s and those who have received a second covid vaccination at least ten days before contact with an infected person.

“We are already seeing issues for businesses related to staff having to self-isolate with covid, or as a close contact of someone who has tested positive, and some of our members are struggling to stay open as a result,” said Essex.

“Instances of self-isolation will almost certainly continue to rise between now and the change set for August 16, so firms need to know if there are any plans to help them cope in the intervening period, including any plans to roll out a ‘test and release’ process – allowing people to return to work more swiftly.” 

On vaccine certification, organisations that operate large, crowded settings where people are likely to be in close proximity to a large number of those from other households are advised to use the NHS covid pass as a condition of entry.

Organisations that use vaccination certification, should ensure they comply with all relevant legal obligations and guidance, including on equalities, the government said.

“BCC research shows most firms previously had no plans to use covid certificates,” said Essex. “Where they are being asked to use such a scheme then government must set out the full rationale for the system, how this relates to employment law and anti-discrimination law and what the consequences will be for businesses who choose not to take this approach.”