On 17 May 2021, England entered Step 3 of the government’s roadmap for the lifting of restrictions following the third national lockdown. We set out below the key changes and what employers should be doing now to prepare for this next stage in the easing of restrictions.
Most businesses in all but the highest risk sectors will be able to reopen: cinemas, theatres, concert halls, museums, art galleries and stately homes will be permitted to reopen for the first time in months, provided they follow government guidance on working safely during coronavirus.
Employers should consult with staff and conduct a thorough risk assessment in advance of reopening, with a particular focus on protecting those employees who are clinically extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 and others who are vulnerable to the virus, including pregnant women.
Where staff have been furloughed or flexi-furloughed, these arrangements will soon need to be brought to an end. Employers should start discussions about returning to work as early as possible, especially with those employees who have been furloughed for extended periods. Employers should ensure that pay and holiday entitlement is correctly calculated to reflect changes in working arrangements, especially if changes take effect partway through a pay period.
Consideration should be given to integrating staff back into the wider workforce and addressing anxieties about returning to work, especially those members of staff who are vulnerable to COVID-19 or have been deeply affected; for example, those with customer-facing roles, those who have suffered bereavements, or members of staff who have been absent for prolonged periods. Employers may need to provide additional training and support to ease the transition.
Employers may want to consider implementing workplace COVID-19 testing. Read here for further information on this topic.
Businesses operating in the highest risk sectors, e.g. nightclubs, must remain closed until 21 June 2021 at the earliest. Support under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme remains available for periods up to 30 September 2021.
Most legal restrictions on meeting outdoors will be lifted, subject to a maximum of 30 people.
For the first time in months, the prospect of socialising on a larger scale is now possible, provided it remains outdoors. The hospitality sector has adapted well to the new circumstances, and there are now many opportunities for outdoor socialising that, to a large extent, are protected from the elements. Businesses will now be able to host social events for both staff and clients.
Employers should remain mindful, however, that members of staff may be anxious about socialising again, especially on a large scale.Some may be fearful of contracting COVID-19, especially if they have not been fully vaccinated (due to their age or because they are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons, including allergies and pregnancy).Other members of staff may have developed elevated levels of social anxiety after months of relative isolation, particularly neurodivergent individuals or those otherwise predisposed to social anxiety. Employers should be sensitive about the requirement to attend social events and consider any reluctance to socialise on a case by case, offering support where necessary.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 remains, despite the easing of restrictions, and employers will want to emphasise the need to remain vigilant and to follow social distancing guidelines. Clearly, businesses will want to avoid an outbreak of the virus in their workforce, especially if it could be linked back to a work-related social event. Clear communication about what is expected from staff, in terms of conduct and health and safety precautions will be key.
A maximum of six people or two households will be able to meet indoors: staff will be able to socialise indoors with colleagues and clients for the first time in months.
Business lunches may once again resume, as corporate credit cards are dusted down across the nation. Employers should, however, be sensitive to staff members who are reluctant to socialise, and also be mindful of their health and safety duties in relation to their staff. Strict rules will apply to indoor socialising, including social distancing and the wearing of masks when not seated. Employers may want to review their client hospitality and entertainment policies, setting out expected standards of conduct and the health and safety precautions that their staff are required to take when entertaining clients.
Employers should also be alive to the risks of bullying and discrimination that may arise from the implications of the Rule of Six: where colleagues may be excluded from social events due to numbers exceeding six.
The Stay in the UK restriction will be lifted and people will be able to travel to a new green list of countries and territories, if they permit inbound travel. The remainder of the accommodation sector will be permitted to open, including hotels, hostels and B&Bs, and overnight stays with other households will be permitted.
Employers should expect an increase in the volume of annual leave requests, as staff are, for the first time this year, given the opportunity to holiday, both abroad and domestically. Employers will need to ensure that they have adequate resourcing to accommodate a high number of staff absences during the same period (the school holidays, for example). Employers should give careful consideration to how they decide between competing annual leave requests, being mindful to avoid indirectly discriminating against certain protected groups. Employers will also want to be sensitive to the impact of the exceptional circumstances of the last 15 months on staff members’ mental health and family relationships, and be mindful of the benefit of taking a long-awaited holiday or trip to visit relatives overseas.
Employers should ensure they are up-to-date with recent and upcoming changes to immigration rules and restrictions on international business travel.
Employers should be prepared for higher levels of short term, unplanned absences.
After more than a year of limited social contact, once the population begins socialising again on a wider scale, we can expect to see a return of the typical, low grade illnesses that caused staff absences prior to the pandemic. Employers may want to review their sickness absence policy, and also reinforce the standards expected of their workforce in terms of attendance levels and reporting of absences.
There is anecdotal evidence that, as the vaccine rollout continues, those in younger age brackets are suffering greater side effects, often resulting in a day or two off work to recover after one or both vaccination appointments. Staff may also need to take time off work to attend vaccination appointments. Employers may want to address absence associated with the COVID-19 vaccine as part of an organisation-wide vaccination policy, especially if the employer seeks to encourage uptake of the vaccine among its workforce.
Expect guidance on working from home to be reviewed by 21 June 2021, and make preparations for future working models and working spaces.
The guidance to work from home if you can remains in place, although it is expected that this will be changed by the time we enter Step 4 (currently timetabled for 21 June 2021). Now is the time for employers to be consulting with staff about future models for working: whether to return to the traditional office-centric model, or to embrace a new partly- or fully-remote model, with a change in the use of existing office space.