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Workers encouraged to return to the workplace

The Government announced that all Plan B measures will be lifted. These measures had originally been introduced back in December 2021 in an attempt to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The lifting of such measures included that the Government would no longer ask individuals to work from home with the prime minister stating;“people should now speak to their employers about arrangements for returning to the office”.

In addition to this, whilst face coverings are currently mandatory for individuals entering shops and using public transport, from 27 January 2022 they will cease to be required in public spaces and the NHS COVID Pass will no longer be required by law in England. It should be noted that there is different guidance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Despite the Government scrapping the guidance that urged individuals to work from home, employers will now have the freedom to decide whether they deem it necessary for their employees to return to the workplace, continue working from home or implement a hybrid working arrangement on a more permanent basis.

Communication of plans, and the timing for such plans and the phasing of any return to the workplace will be critical as we start to find our feet on what the new ‘normal’ looks like when it comes to working arrangement.

Employers are still being urged to remain cautious and warned against a ‘pendulum swing’ between home working and a permanent return to the office. The pandemic has caused much disruption resulting in many people reconsidering their expectations regarding work and how they reconcile their work and domestic responsibilities.

Employers should take care to think about what ways of working will be effective for them and whether they can harness a more flexible working arrangement. There is no one size fits all and what works for one employer may not work for another.

Competition is rife and working out what employees are really looking for when it comes to working environment can be a challenge. There will be those that want to continue with their current flexible arrangements, whilst others may be keen to return to a more social working life, and so any role that is permanently based at home may in fact be a turn-off.

Employers should take care to think about what ways of working will be effective for them and whether they can harness a more flexible working arrangement. There is no one size fits all and what works for one employer may not work for another.

Risk assessments and vaccine status?

If employers decide to bring their employees back to the workplace then, although social distancing limits no longer apply in the UK, employers do have a legal duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees and provide a safe system of work.

For the time being this must involve employers following official safety guidance Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) – Guidance – GOV.UK (which will no doubt be updated in light of the announcement), carrying out risk assessments and taking reasonable steps to manage any risks in the workplace.

If employers decide to make employees to return to the workplace, they should still take steps to consider the risks COVID-19 poses within their working space, from ventilation and cleaning, to encouraging good hygiene and considering working arrangements, but the risks are clearly changing.

Further, whilst a number of high profile employers have adopted a tough position on vaccine status during the pandemic, as life goes back to normal and vaccine passports are not required in day to day life, it will beg the question as to why employers are seeking vaccination as a condition of work?

Will it be relevant to sick pay and absence issues still, or as the effects wane and isolation periods removed, will the issue of vaccination status become a controversial topic with scope for reputational damage?

There are plenty of new issues to navigate in the next few months. Even as we hopefully see the effects of the pandemic gradually ease, it does not necessarily mean less headaches for employers as they adapt to new ways of working and unpick some of the rules and regulations imposed over the last couple of years.

If employers have any concerns or want more detailed advice or guidance then please contact our Employment lawyers.

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Disclaimer
This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full General Notices on our website.

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