The Government announced on 5 July that it intends to end all current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in England from 19 July.
This will be confirmed on 12 July, following a review of emerging health data. Further guidance will also be issued on that date and over the summer. The Government emphasizes that the risks of COVID-19 have not disappeared but there will be a move away from legal restrictions towards personal responsibility with people managing the risks for themselves and others. Broadly, lifting current restrictions will mean the following:
- All businesses will be allowed to reopen including nightclubs. There will be no restriction on numbers in concerts, theatres or sports venues.
- Social distancing rules (2 metre or 1 metre plus mitigations) will come to an end in all but limited circumstances. People are urged to still consider the risks of close contact with others. The Government has indicated that it will produce guidance on 'how business can reduce unnecessary contact in the workplace, where it is practical'.
- There will no longer be a legal requirement to wear face coverings but guidance will clarify when it might be appropriate to wear them. The Government will advise that a face covering will reduce risk where people come into contact with others they don't normally meet in enclosed and crowded spaces.
- From 19 July, the Government will no longer instruct people to work from home so employers can start to plan a return to workplaces. The Government has recognised that future working arrangements, including hybrid working, should be a matter of discussion and negotiation between businesses and their workforce.
- Currently there is no intention to introduce a COVID-19 certification status scheme for entry into certain businesses (such as pubs) or events. Should this change, the Government will carry out a further consultation.
- The NHS app (test and trace) will no longer be a legal requirement in certain businesses but is encouraged and may still be used on a voluntary basis.
- The rules on self-isolation will be changing, with further details being made available later in the summer. From 16 August, self-isolation will no longer be necessary for those fully vaccinated (or those under 18) who have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19. However, there will still be a requirement to self-isolate if an individual tests positive for COVID-19 or is told to self-isolate by Test and Trace (but not, in the latter instance, if they are fully vaccinated). Businesses must still require a self-isolating worker not to come to work and should make sure that workers and customers who feel unwell do not attend the workplace setting. The Test and Trace Support Payment (£500) will remain available at least until the end of September.
- Travel – it is expected that someone who is fully vaccinated will not have to self-isolate if returning from an amber country. The Transport Secretary will provide an update later this week.
This is good news for employers in that they can start to bring employees back to work. However, the continuing health and safety obligations owed to employees means that this must be done in a COVID-secure manner, with risk assessments being carried out and measures being put in place to mitigate risk.
By giving businesses and individuals the freedom to decide for themselves on how to approach COVID-19 risk, the Government has potentially created new difficulties because everyone's attitude towards risk is different. The fact that wearing masks and social distancing may be appropriate to mitigate risk means that these areas are likely to create workplace dispute or grievances. By definition, these measures need to be collective in order to be fully effective, which could give rise to employees, or groups of employees, being pitted against each other. As recent employment tribunal cases have shown, those with clinical vulnerabilities, or living with the clinically vulnerable, may take matters into their own hands if they do not regard the measures taken in the workplace as sufficiently robust.
Employers also need to be aware that the situation could change at short notice, depending on variants and health data. Although the Government has indicated that restrictions would only be reintroduced as a last resort to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS, many in the scientific community think lifting all restrictions at once is a gamble and that we might see restrictions return in autumn or winter.
Please seek advice from your usual contact in the Employment team if you are grappling with the issues raised by the recent announcement, or if you would like advice on return to work issues, hybrid working policies or related matters.