On 22 September 2020, the Prime Minister announced a change in the Government's approach to working from home, in light of the recent spike in cases recorded across the UK. In this note, we consider what effects the most recent announcement has on employers with employees who normally work in offices.
- The Government now recommends that office workers should work from home through the winter, in situations where "an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home". This is a contrast from the previous Government position, which encouraged office employees to return to work where it was safe to do so.
- Those who cannot work from home should continue going to their place of work. Such workplaces have been asked to continue to closely follow the COVID-19 Secure Guidelines, which is further explored in our COVID-19: Return to Work Health & Safety Considerations article.
- The Government has announced the enhancement of enforcement of the COVID-19 Secure Guidelines in certain sectors, including in relation to leisure and entertainment venues and close contact services, where repeated breaches of the COVID-19 Secure requirements may attract fines of up to £10,000. The new regulations to implement such fines are due to come into force in England on 28 September and could be extended UK-wide.
- Employers have been reminded that they should not mandate or encourage someone who is self-isolating to come to work. They must also remind people to wear face coverings where mandated.
From a practical perspective, organisations should revisit their "return to work" plans and consider whether their employees are able to carry out their work from home. Where it is not possible to do so, for example where there is a business critical/operational need to be in the office or where working from home has impacted an employee's mental health, employers, in consultation with employees, should set out a plan that allows for employees to return to work safely. Indeed, it has been reported that several major banks and other large organisations in London have already paused their 'return-to-office' plans following the Government's announcement. Staff have been asked to "exercise their own judgment" and to only attend the office if they have a "personal or business need" to do so.
Despite the change in emphasis on working from home described above, businesses should continue to take all necessary precautionary health and safety measures outlined in the relevant Government Guidance to protect those employees and visitors who continue to come to work, including completing a COVID-19 risk assessment.
Contract tracing and QR codes
- In addition to the changes in relation to working from home described above, the Government has stated that certain businesses will need to display the official NHS QR code posters so that customers can ‘check-in’ at different premises from 24 September onwards. Individuals can scan the QR code with their mobile phone to record that they have visited a particular location, as an alternative to using the NHS' contact tracing app (which is now available in England and Wales).
- There is no general requirement for offices to display a QR code poster. These are only likely to be needed where there is a high number of external visitors or where workers cannot easily be contacted in the event of an outbreak linked to the site. However, all workplace canteens and cafes must have a QR code poster.
- Information about how to create a QR code for your premises can be found on the Government website.
The Government expects that the measures described above in relation to working from home and QR Code/Contact Tracing will remain in effect until March 2021.
A more detailed Travers Smith briefing on potential legal health and safety risks of returning to work and other considerations for employers and businesses can be found here.
Please note this briefing does not constitute legal advice and no reliance should be taken upon it. We must also stress that this is a rapidly evolving area and as such this briefing only provides a summary of general guidance available at the time of writing. Please continue to check the latest Government guidance. Of course, if you require any formal assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.