12 February 2021 #Employment
As COVID-19 infections in the UK fall, businesses in all sectors are looking for as much notice as possible of the Government’s roadmap out of the crisis caused by the pandemic. They want to know when the current lockdown will start to be lifted and what general or sector specific restrictions on operations will remain in place. Employers are understandably focused on the business-critical question of whether the furlough scheme will be extended beyond April.
However, it is important not to lose sight of the changes to workplace restrictions that the Government is considering while lockdown and the requirement to work from home if reasonably possible remain in place.
The most significant of these is the possibility that mandatory wearing of masks may be extended to all indoor workplaces, not only those where staff are likely to come into close contact with members of the public, in addition to other mitigations such as distancing, screens and hygiene protocols.
Why is the Government considering this now, when infection rates are falling, and the vaccination programme is on track?
Infection rates are falling across the country although at different rates. An analysis of infection rates by IMD decile by James Ward of the most up-to-date official data from Public Health England shows that in local areas which tend to have the lowest percentage of people in roles that can be done remotely, COVID-19 infections are:
Second, despite generally falling infection rates and the great majority of employers complying with COVID-19 guidance, reported workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 increased immediately in the first week of January and did not significantly fall for 4 weeks. This may be due to the more transmissible variant only coming to predominate in January in regions of the country with more manufacturing, distribution and food processing businesses.
The vaccination programme is being rolled out at impressive pace and this is the cornerstone of the UK’s exit strategy. It is already known that, from 14 days after the first jab, vaccination greatly reduces the risk to the individual of serious illness or death from COVID-19. The Government’s scientific advisers are confident that vaccination will also reduce the risk of transmitting infection once enough people have been vaccinated and the intention is to use this as a key brake on the spread of new variants of COVID-19.
However, schools are due to reopen more widely from 6 March, which is before the majority of the working age population will have started being offered their first jab. The return to in-person education for all children is of course a national priority which business wholeheartedly supports. Nonetheless, the Government recognises that it is likely to increase transmission of COVID-19 and is considering ways to counter that effect.
The Government has stated that it intends to remove restrictions on an England-wide basis and is conscious that the areas where infections are highest and falling the slowest are broadly the same areas which had the highest proportion of school days lost due to Covid-19 when schools were fully open in the Autumn term. It is also relevant that the government is considering making masks in secondary school classes mandatory (with relevant exemptions).
For all these reasons, businesses should be prepared for the possibility that masks could be required in all workplaces by 6 March. For advice on masks in the workplace, including exemptions and discrimination issues, contact our employment team.