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COVID-19 Winter Plan: HR responds

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Though the prime minister’s COVID-19 Winter Plan will mean the requirement to stay at home will be lifted from 2 December, a return to the tiered system, travel restrictions, and advice to continue working from home until April 2021 creates a mixed picture to what leaving the second lockdown means for businesses across England.

HR coordinator Matt Provost said that people teams in particular need to be aware of the effect constant change and uncertainty will have on the workforce.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “With the return to the tier system this may lead to confusion and resentment if your organisation covers multiple regions in different tiers. Good two-way communication can help allay fears and prevent any issues.”

Provost also warned leaders to be mindful of employees’ mixed emotions when it comes to news of the vaccine: “It can lead to a rush of relief vs fear of returning to the ‘old normal’ for example or people potentially thinking the ‘all clear’ has been sounded before it actually has.”


Christmas wishes

A time-limited change to social restrictions is being planned for the Christmas period which may mean more changes into the new year.

Provost added: “We may yet enter another more severe lockdown and the ever-evolving nature of this year can cause challenges for all with planning childcare, caring responsibilities and much more.”

Regardless of the tier, the government has advised that shops, personal care, gyms and the wider leisure sector will reopen, collective worship, weddings and outdoor sports will resume, and the rule of six when meeting outdoors will reapply.

Yet many industries are waiting with bated breath until Thursday’s confirmation of which tier their business will be in.

Samantha Hamilton, HR director at Dakota Hotels, said: “It’s increasingly difficult navigating a hospitality business with premises in England and Scotland with the differences in strategy and differing timescales.

“News of the new tier 3 restrictions today, closing hospitality, will be crippling for many in the industry who rely on December trade to see them through January and February. It won’t be worthwhile for many businesses to reopen until April, even if restrictions do ease in the new year.

“The uncertainty on when exactly we will be able to do business and to what extent is making business planning and forecasting guesswork until the next announcements are made.”


City impact

As larger cities, such as Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds, London and Manchester rely heavily on commuter footfall there is heightened concern about how businesses in these areas will survive the coming months.

Some groups, including The City of London Corporation, are calling for a plan for return to offices before the vaccine is developed to help support city economies.

Derek Ray-Hill, managing director at Cities Restart, which aims to help business and civic leaders figure out plans to recover from the pandemic, said: “Keeping up morale, clear communications and a strong support network are vital for employees as we head out of the lockdown in England.”

As employees at different sites across the country will be subject to different tier restrictions, Ray-Hill added: “Employers must think carefully about creating a sense of ‘we are all in this together’ despite these differences.”

The plan also brings up new consideration for the furlough scheme according to Sinead Casey, partner in the employment and incentives practice at Linklaters.

Casey said employers will now need to ask whether employees are willing to continue on furlough, because agreement is needed, or would they prefer to be made redundant?

By March next year some employees may have spent almost a year on furlough which, she said, will have undeniable implications on employee wellbeing.

Casey added: “Employers will also be looking closely at the guidance on working from home, as the government has said that it wants employers to encourage more home working and will strengthen the guidance to be very clear that anyone who can work from home should do so.”

The chancellor is set to announce a Spending Review on Wednesday which many hope will bring further support to carry businesses into the new year.

Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), said: “We hope the Chancellor will use Wednesday’s Spending Review to boost the economy into the new year by reducing employers' National Insurance contributions to promote hiring and minimise redundancies.

“Funding Statutory Sick Pay for all would ensure that temporary workers and the employment businesses who supply them are able to continue to support businesses in their recovery.”