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Coronavirus survey: how are UK employers responding to ‘Freedom Day’?

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Ius Laboris UK firm Lewis Silkin have surveyed employers on how they are responding to the lifting of lockdown restrictions: many are maintaining a cautious approach.

This was a pulse survey carried out between 19 and 21 July involving 59 HR leaders and in-house counsel in a cross-section of businesses collectively employing over 400,000 employees. The survey confirms that employers are taking a cautious approach to the end of working from home guidance and lifting of social distancing measures.

What’s the timeline for return to the office?

We asked what approach employers were taking towards the lifting of the ‘work from home if you can’ guidance on 19 July. It’s clear that there is no universal rush back to the office. Nearly 90% of employers are not requiring all staff to return to the office at this stage, with 56% opening the office to volunteers only. Over 70% of employers, however, think that they will ask staff to return to the office (fully or partially) by September, although 17% still have no timeline in mind.

Face masks, social distancing, occupancy levels and cohorting

We asked employers how they were responding to key aspects of the new workplace safety guidance.

Since 19 July, legal requirements on wearing face masks have been dropped in England. Government guidance simply encourages people to wear face masks in crowded and enclosed spaces, but they are no longer compulsory by law in any setting. Employers, however, are not ready to change the rules on face masks for their staff. More than half are going beyond government guidance and making face masks compulsory for employees in certain areas of the building (e.g. lifts) unless exemptions apply.

It is a similar picture for social distancing measures. Despite social distancing being dropped from the government guidance as a key measure for controlling the spread of COVID-19, nearly 60% of our survey respondents are keeping all social distancing measures in place for the time being (i.e. not changing anything), with a further 19% keeping some social distancing measures in place.

The removal of social distancing guidelines means that there are no longer any limits on occupancy, so in theory (and subject to new guidance on adequate ventilation) an office can operate at pre-pandemic capacity levels. Nearly 60% of those responding to our question about occupancy levels, however, say that they are limiting daily occupancy to between 40 and 60%. Less than a third of offices and support centres are operating without occupancy limits.

The government advice has shifted away from keeping physical distance towards reducing face-to-face contact. The guidance proposes ‘cohorting’ (so each person works with only a few others) as an example of a way to reduce the numbers of people each person has contact with. Only a quarter of employers, however, said they were adopting this measure. Most were not doing so, although 16% indicated that it was under consideration. As we commented in our article on the new workplace safety guidance, cohorting may be challenging in many office environments and businesses with lower levels of overall occupancy may be satisfied that the hybrid working model sufficiently reduces contact.

Checking staff Covid status

The approach to checking Covid status before staff can attend work is much more varied, with many employers undecided. The most common approach involves not tracking Covid status at all, with around 40% of employers not asking employees to take tests or say if they’ve been vaccinated before they can attend work. After this, the next most popular options are as follows:

  • Requiring that employees must have some form of Covid status before they can attend the office, but not demanding proof of this (for example asking employees to take tests but not demanding that they evidence the outcome): 18% are doing this.
  • Asking employees to disclose their Covid status on a voluntary basis but not requiring them to do so: 17% are doing this.

From 19 July, the NHS Covid pass has been freely available in England and can be used to evidence that an individual is fully vaccinated, has recently tested negative, or has assumed immunity following a positive PCR test in the last six months. We’ve written about using the NHS Covid pass for staff here. Nearly one in ten of those who responded to our question about NHS Covid passes said that they were already thinking of introducing the pass. It seems likely that more employers will start checking Covid status as the situation evolves.

In summary: employers may be more cautious than government

With Delta variant infections still soaring, our survey results show that employers are increasingly choosing their own approaches, regardless of government guidance. In other words, ‘freedom day’ was not followed by a bonfire of office Covid safety measures. Employers are responding to the wishes of their staff, many of whom will continue to be reluctant to take risks while case numbers remain so high, and are conscious of the duty of care they owe to their employees. With the wider picture so uncertain, our survey indicates that employers are taking their duties towards staff seriously.

Ius Laboris

Ius Laboris is a leading international employment law practice combining the world’s leading employment, labour and pension firms. Our role lies in sharing insights and helping clients to navigate the world of labour and employment law successfully.
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