Coronavirus Legal Briefing | The guidance for business starts to emerge

Written on 11 May 2020

Welcome to Osborne Clarke's Coronavirus Legal Briefing, our newsletter on business law issues in these sombre times. In this edition, we look at the guidance coming out of the UK as the lockdown rules for business become more complex.

Stop press: After the text of this Briefing was written this afternoon, the UK government published the new ‘COVID-19 secure’ workplace guidelines which I discuss below. There are eight guides covering: construction and other outdoor work; factories, plants and warehouses; homes; labs and research facilities; offices and contact centres; restaurants offering takeaway and delivery; shops and branches; and vehicles. These eights guides can be accessed here.

The UK government's recovery strategy

This afternoon the UK government published its much-anticipated 60 page guidance paper, 'OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy'.

It's a detailed, and in parts complex, document. Naturally and importantly, there is a good deal of discussion of public health developments. For business, it is the government's 'three step plan' that will be most immediately relevant.

The first step: work from home except if work cannot be done from home

This will apply from Wednesday 13 May. 'For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible'.

But 'all workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open. Sectors of the economy that are allowed to be open should be open, for example this includes food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories. The only exceptions to this are those workplaces such as hospitality and nonessential retail which during this first step the Government is requiring to remain closed'.

The 'COVID-19 Secure' guidelines

At some point this week – possibly tomorrow – the government will publish 'COVID-19 Secure guidelines' which workplaces should follow 'as soon as practicable'. (See 'Stop press' above!)

Travel, face coverings, and enforcement

Travel guidance will also be published this week. For international travel, the government confirms that 'it will require all international arrivals not on a short list of exemptions to self-isolate in their accommodation for fourteen days on arrival into the UK'. Those international travel restrictions will not come into force on 13 May, but 'will be introduced as soon as possible', with guidance and more details to follow.

On face coverings, 'the Government is now advising that people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet, for example on public transport or in some shops'.

The government is considering more stringent enforcement measures for non-compliance with social distancing and other measures.

The second step: non-essential retail to re-open, where possible

The second step will start 'no earlier than 1 June'. At this point, non-essential retail will open when and where it is safe to do so, and 'subject to those retailers being able to follow the new COVID-19 Secure guidelines'.

But 'all other sectors that are currently closed, including hospitality and personal care, are not able to re-open at this point because the risk of transmission in these environments is higher'.

At this second step, 'cultural and sporting events [may] take place behind closed-doors for broadcast, while avoiding the risk of large-scale social contact'.

The third step: everyone else, if possible

This third step will be 'no earlier than 4 July'. Then, the government has the 'ambition' to 'open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons) hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas)', provided the new COVID-19 Secure guidelines can be followed in each case

However, 'some venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing may still not be able to re-open safely at this point, or may be able to open safely only in part'.

Other guidance published today and coming this week

Accompanying the main guidance paper is shorter advice on 'Staying alert and social distancing guidance', and 'Coronavirus outbreak FAQs: what you can and can’t do'.

Also expected this week is an announcement from the Treasury on the future of the Job Retention (furlough) Scheme, and possibly on state support for particular sectors of the economy.

A new world

The Prime Minister says in his foreword to the guidance that it 'sets out a plan to rebuild the UK for a world with COVID-19', saying that 'a mass vaccine or treatment may be more than a year away. Indeed, in a worst-case scenario, we may never find a vaccine. So our plan must countenance a situation where we are in this, together, for the long haul, even while doing all we can to avoid that outcome'.

So 'we must acknowledge that life will be different, at least for the foreseeable future'.

And that thought is expanded in two passages in the document's concluding remarks that have potentially big implications for business.

First, that the 'world will not return to 'normal' after COVID-19; much of the global economy is likely to change significantly. The UK will need to be agile in adapting to and shaping this new world if the Government is to improve living standards across the nation as it recovers from COVID-19'.

Second, that 'before the virus struck, the Government's Budget set out plans to invest in infrastructure, including significant investments in science, technology and skills. Previous generations built infrastructure on which the public now depend. Now it is the Government’s responsibility to build the public health and governmental infrastructure - across the entirety of the United Kingdom - that will protect the country for decades to come'.

As we cope with the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic for all our people, those remarks remind us of the scale of the changes which may come across the economy and across society.