As the government looks to ease emergency restrictions, what issues should businesses consider?
Employers will need to start to assess how they adapt to a new stage of the lockdown after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his Downing Street speech (Monday 27 April) that the nation was coming to the end of the first phase of its coronavirus "conflict".
Speaking on his return to work following his recovery from Covid-19, the Prime Minister indicated that the government is set to offer more details "in the coming days" on how it plans to enter this second phase of its emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Johnson said the government in this next stage will "begin gradually to refine the economic and social restrictions and one by one to fire up the engines of this vast UK economy".
Businesses have been focusing on their continuity strategies during lockdown, and how to minimise workplace costs, support employees and manage employee relations. Employers must now look to adapt business continuity strategies for the next phase as the economy moves towards a different footing in response to the pandemic.
A natural path for the government to take would be for a return to work on a sector-by-sector basis. However, the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) has indicated that an approach by type of workplace is being actively explored as a preferred approached. Consider, for example, the health and safety considerations for a retail unit will be very different for those of a factory or office setting.
This workplace approach will allow for more focus on what is needed in a specific work setting at a particular time. We anticipate that in line with other EU countries, homeworking will continue to be encouraged, if only to take the pressure off public transport as it ramps back up against the backdrop of social-distancing measures.
'Freedom within a framework'
Further government guidelines for stage two are inevitable, but the CBI has called for there to be "freedom within a framework". This would enable businesses to manage their compliance in a way that meets the needs of their specific workplaces and the necessary government guidelines which underpin these responses. Existing health and safety and employment law considerations will also continue to apply.
In their efforts to get employees "back through the door", employers should resist the temptation to simply adhere to the minimum health and safety guidelines; as demonstrated by other jurisdictions, this can negatively impact on employee and customer confidence.
However, organisations wishing to take enhanced steps to protect their workforce will still face challenges; for example, will it be appropriate for an employer to purchase large amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) where this remains in high demand for front line workers? Should employees be required to download the government's proposed tracker app?
Clear communication and buy-in from employees is critical. Where trade unions or workplace forums are in place, employers should engage accordingly. A risk assessment will be essential.
Employers must have a clear-sighted sense of the wider economic picture and of their supply chains. A careful assessment of supply and demand will be needed. Can retail premises open to sell stock before its production is resumed? Do employees returning to the shop floor have customers to serve? Employers may take this opportunity to review specific parts of their operations which were struggling before the pandemic struck.
Employers must factor in continuing government funding arrangements, specifically, as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is set to end on 30 June 2020. While the mammoth efforts of HMRC to get the scheme up and running in such a short space of time must be congratulated, concern has been raised that there is no similar support for employees still working on reduced hours and more may be doing so as we enter stage two. Employee expectations may also need to be managed that a return to work is not a return to pre-coronavirus normality – for example, cost-cutting measures may well continue in the longer term.
The UK is not alone; governments worldwide are seeking to reinvigorate their economies while continuing with a "health-first" response. We can look to the range of strategies adopted across the globe to understand what potential measures may be adopted and the considerations that can begin to be assessed by employers; now is a good time to begin this process.
Addressing the speed of the easing and lifting of the lockdown, Mr Johnson said: "We simply cannot spell out how fast or slow, or even when these changes will be made". While the promised announcement on details of the exit from lockdown is welcome, employers should remain mindful that the UK government continues to be guided by the science. Mr Johnson has called for patience and made clear that there will only be a move to the second phase "when we're sure that this first phase is over and that we're meeting our five tests: deaths falling, NHS protected, rate of infection down, really sorting out the challenges of testing and PPE, avoiding a second peak".
While opinion differs as to when relaxation in the UK might start and what form any exit strategy will take, it is clear that there will not be any immediate return to business as usual. Employers must now do their best to prepare as much as possible, keeping a close eye on government guidance, existing employment law and health and safety law considerations, the impact on their employer brand and lessons from other jurisdictions.