Latest Government Announcements - What Employers Need To Know
On 5th July 2021, the Prime Minister announced the lifting of almost all the legal restrictions that have been imposed to combat the spread and threat of COVID-19. This will apply to England only and will come into force from 19th July.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Island have their own rules around this, and different timescales for change to be communicated by their own governments.
Although face masks are no longer going to be a legal requirement in some settings, they may still be kept as mandatory PPE in some key areas. Therefore, businesses may wonder if they can ask their employees to continue wearing face masks at work. The answer is that it will be up to the business to set that as a requirement and provide supporting evidence on why they feel it is needed; this will take the form of risk assessments. Where an employee is exempt from wearing a face mask, such as for medical reasons, the employer will need to work with those individuals on a 1:1 basis to implement alternative supportive reasonable adjustments such as face shields, etc.
However, if the employee has no medical exemption, and they are just refusing to wear one because they don’t want to or no longer have to by law, then in order for the employer to take any formal action such as a disciplinary, they would need to have reasonable grounds to do so only after having consulted with the employee to discover why they won’t wear one, explained why the business wants them to wear one and can provide tangible evidence (i.e. risk assessment) to show why they need employees to wear one.
It is more likely that the request will be viewed as reasonable in settings like NHS, care homes etc rather than an office environment but it will still need to be proven why it’s required and as such why the request is reasonable.
The government is accelerating the vaccination programme for under-40s by reducing the 12-week gap between both doses to 8 weeks This means all adults should have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated by mid-September. It is anticipated that more information on a “winter booster” for extremely clinically vulnerable adults will be released in due course.
There have been no further announcements as yet about the intention to make the COVID vccine mandatory in care home settings from October 2021.
Limits on social contact
These limits, including the rule of 6, will disappear, meaning people can meet inside or outside with as many people as they are happy to see. There will no longer be any restrictions on the number of guests at weddings and mourners at funerals. Large scale events, such as festivals or large sporting events, will no longer require certification to go ahead. Limits will also be lifted from businesses, meaning clubs can reopen and theatres and cinemas can return to normal capacities.
Requirement for proof of vaccination
Businesses do not need to ask people to prove their COVID status (whether they've had the vaccine or to prove that they are COVID negative) through so-called domestic vaccine passports. However, the Prime Minister has said firms can choose to use the COVID status certification system. So, you may still need to prove you've taken the vaccine or get tested, if businesses or event organisers insist on these safety measures.
Social distancing rules
The 'one metre plus' rule is being scrapped entirely in England. Social distancing guidance will continue if someone is COVID positive and self-isolating, or in airports, or other ports of entry, to avoid travellers arriving from amber or red-list countries mixing with those from green-list areas.
Working from home
The guidance on working from home will go, and messaging on the issue will end.
It is ultimately down to individual employers to decide whether to keep staff at home or in the office, but the government says employers will now be able to plan the return of staff to the workplace.
Self-isolation when a close contact tests positive for COVID-19
The Test and Trace system is here to stay. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will still need to share details of their close contacts with NHS Test and Trace. If you have been in close contact with somebody who tests positive and are contacted by NHS Test and Trace by text, email or phone call, you will need to self-isolate for at least 10 days.
Your isolation period includes the date of your last contact with the infected person and the next 10 full days. Failure to self-isolate can result in a fine, starting from £1,000.
If you don't have symptoms, people you live with do not need to self-isolate with you.
If you do have symptoms, other people you live with must self-isolate for 10 days too, and you must get a COVID test. Your household can also get a test, even if they do not have symptoms. Your household’s isolation period includes the day your symptoms started and the next 10 full days.
Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland
The changes to COVID rules, announced by the Prime Minister, only affect England and will not change regulations in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland.
The Welsh Government said it “would like to move together” with other parts of the UK in lifting coronavirus restrictions but will only do so if it is “right for Wales”. A further announcement on any potential easing of lockdown measures in Wales may be made next week.
The Scottish government delayed further wide-scale reopening to July 19th when they have planned for all areas to move to level 0. They are aiming to lift all major restrictions in Scotland by August 9th.
In Northern Ireland, some significant restrictions have already been eased from Monday including allowing the resumption of live music and the lifting of caps on organised outdoor gatherings.
What has been left out of the announcement
Long awaited clarity on holidays, isolation and the future of measures in schools were missing from the Prime Minister's announcements. However, on 6th July, the Education Secretary made a statement to Parliament in which he announced that from 19th July grouping pupils into protective bubbles within schools, colleges and nurseries in England would be scrapped along with other preventive measures, with requirements for self-isolation for contacts to end in August.
Secondary schools will still be required to conduct twice-weekly lateral flow tests of pupils at the start of the new school year. However, it was announced that this practice would be reviewed before the end of September.
It is anticipated that further announcements will be made on travel and isolation in the coming days.
As always, the situation is fluid and may well change, depending on unforeseen developments. We would always advise that businesses continue to monitor the media and, if in doubt, consult their legal advisers for further guidance.