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Lifting of lockdown restrictions leaves employers apprehensive

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The easing of lockdown restrictions on 19 July in England has worried employers, as the change to face covering and social distancing rules could divide the UK workforce.

Speaking yesterday evening (5 July) during a live news conference, Boris Johnson said people must now learn to live with this virus and exercise judgement when making decisions over socialising.

The prime minister announced an end to social distancing, mandatory face mask wearing and working from home guidance in England on 19 July.

Johnson said a final review of the data will be made this week, with the decision to be confirmed on 12 July. 

He said: "As we come to the fourth step [of the roadmap out of lockdown] we have to balance the risks.

"If we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and the school holidays, we must ask ourselves 'when will we be able to reopen?"

Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing, said the changes to COVID-restrictions, specifically the change to face mask wearing, could pose a threat to vulnerable workers

He told HR magazine: "Mask wearing as a personal choice may sound like a pragmatic political position, but actually equates more accurately to 'no legal requirement to wear a mask', so this is a big moment in the history of UK COVID-19 restrictions.

"The real issue here is that mask wearing is largely a measure that prevents the mask-wearer from potentially spreading the virus to others, rather than the other way around. 

"So it’s the personal choices of others that dictate the chance of the virus being spread to any one individual in a crowded or confined space, and many employees, even those now double-jabbed, may well feel uncomfortable in the situation where mask wearing is no longer mandatory."

Herbert urged employers to recognise this concern, particularly as many workers are already anxious about the return to the physical workplace.

"Employers might unilaterally opt to maintain mask wearing in some scenarios, or continue to offer homeworking until the evidence around COVID-19 risks post-vaccinations are better understood. 

"The key thing will be for employers to show strong but compassionate leadership as the national workplace return takes shape,” he said.

David Jepps, employment partner at Keystone Law, said if the government decides that mask wearing will become voluntary from 19 July, employers should still consider the issue of mask wearing in their workplaces and be seen to do so in risk assessments.

He told HR magazine: “This is important to allay concerns and manage risks, particularly to those that may be clinically vulnerable.

“It will also demonstrate that employers are observing their duty of care.”

Employers have a duty of care to maintain adequate health and safety measures in the workplace, explained Jepps.

“They should undertake regular risk assessments and act on them.

"In addition to workplace risk assessments there should also be specific risk assessments for any staff that are clinically vulnerable, disabled and or pregnant,” he said.

Jepps said employers can, irrespective of government policies, continue with a mask-wearing policy in the workplace, as well as other social distancing measures.

He said: “They should update and follow their own workplace risk assessments and listen to the views of staff.

“If it is difficult to maintain social distancing in the workplace or staff are very apprehensive then it is common sense that such measures should continue for now, perhaps with a review date.”

Trade unions have urged government to rethink the changes to face covering rules to avoid putting vulnerable workers at risk. 

Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said while everyone wants the economy to unlock as soon as possible, it is vital that people returning to work have confidence their workplaces are COVID-secure.

He said: “It is not acceptable for the government to outsource its health and safety responsibilities to individuals and to employers.

“Personal responsibility will have a role to play, but ministers cannot wash their hands of keeping people safe at work.”

Nowak said with COVID cases still rising the government must send out a clear message to employers to play by the rules or face serious action.

“That means publishing clear guidance based on the most up-to-date science and consultations with unions and employers,” he said.