UPDATE - this briefing was written prior to the government releasing its guidance on working safely during coronavirus in offices and contact centres on Monday 11 May 2020, which can be found here.
Many office buildings will have been left empty, or very nearly empty, since the government advised anyone who can work from home should do so. As businesses wait on government guidance this weekend to find out what the measures to ease lockdown might mean for them, landlords and those responsible for shared buildings will be turning their attention to what they need to do before bringing their buildings back into full use.
Landlords and those responsible for common parts of a building have statutory duties to take all reasonable steps to ensure those visiting buildings or working within them are not exposed to risks to their health. Although landlords and building owners are unlikely to find themselves directly liable for an occupier or visitor contracting the virus (not least because it will be very difficult to prove where an infection was contracted) landlords should put in place reasonable infection control measures to ensure occupiers and visitors are safe in their buildings.
Landlords and those managing multi let space should consider:
1. Managing the common areas and shared facilities
The measures expected of landlords will differ depending on the particular building and how it is used. Landlords should consider providing additional hand washing or santisation stations, enhanced cleaning and signage to remind people of social distancing rules. If the building contains lifts or areas with limited space landlords should consider implementing policies to minimise people coming into close contact with each other.
Generally modern leases contain provisions which allow landlords to recover additional costs that have been reasonably incurred in managing the building, so it is likely any additional costs to the landlord can be recovered under the service charge, but landlords will need to check their leases carefully in every case.
2. Engagement with tenants
Landlords should engage with their tenants at an early opportunity to find out what their plans are for bringing staff back into the building. Landlords and building managers should consider whether it is practical to stagger start times to avoid common parts being overwhelmed and (subject to the government’s plans for contact tracing) to put in place policies for notification of cases or suspected cases of COVID-19 where it is appropriate to do so.
3. Keep up to date with Guidance
Landlords should follow and keep up to date with Public Health England (PHE), The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and government guidance. Professional industry bodies (for example BPF and BCO) may also publish guidance which will help building managers to understand what they need to do. Guidance is changing all the time, but the measure of reasonable steps that a landlord should take may well be complying with the latest guidance, so building managers and landlords should keep up to date as guidance changes.
4. Employment obligations
If you employ staff at the building in security, reception or facilities roles then there may be additional duties as an employer to ensure the health and safety of that person in conducting their role, including the provision of appropriate PPE and any additional steps to keep the employee safe. If you have any catering facilities at the building specific guidance is available from PHE on those facilities.
5. Insurance requirements
The building’s insurers may have special requirements on reopening and in connection with keeping the building safe. You should check the specifics of your policy and any supplemental terms to ensure obligations are met.