The Prime Minister set out on 22 February a four step roadmap to "cautiously" ease lockdown restrictions in England. However, as previously, nothing is set in stone with each step to be assessed against specifc tests – centred on the vaccination programme, pressure on the NHS and any new variants of concern - to keep infection rates under control before restrictions are eased. Separate measures to ease lockdown are being introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Considerations for employers
We now wait for further guidance but employers should note the following:
- Covid-secure workplaces: It is clear that we may all be living with Covid-19 for some time yet meaning that "as restrictions are lifted, maintaining good habits which minimise transmission will be important, for both individuals and businesses". However, recognising that "social distancing is difficult and damaging for businesses", a review will be carried out to help inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which rules such as the "one metre plus", face masks and other measures may be lifted. In the interim, guidance will be updated to provide further advice on improving fresh air flow in indoor workplaces and introducing regular testing to reduce risk. With testing a key part of the government's strategy to "keep the virus in check", the government's offer of free test kits to workplaces for staff who cannot work from home will be extended until end of June. However, organisations, including those yet to re-open, will need to register interest before 31 March.
- Work from home: People must continue to work from home "where possible"; as before this will be confirmed in guidance. The review into social distancing and other long term measures put in place to limit transmission (see above) will be used to inform decisions on how long this measure remains.
- Supporting the vulnerable: Those who are identified as "Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV)" (including those identified under the new QCovid model) should follow shielding guidance but it is anticipated "that it will no longer be necessary to advise shielding beyond the end of March 2021". Advice and next steps will be confirmed nearer the time. "Long term support" is also being considered for this group, particularly those who cannot be vaccinated or who do not receive a significant increase in immunity from the vaccine. As previously announced, all clinically vulnerable individuals (not just those in the CEV category) have been prioritised for vaccination.
- Childcare: From 8 March schools reopen for all children (not just those of key workers). Employers should, however, remain sensitive to the fact that parents may still face difficulties where access to after school activities remain limited and that children may be required to self-isolate under current rules. These situations will need to continue to be handled sensitively in light of legal obligations and employee relations. The government has indicated that it will expand support for those self-isolating "to cover parents who are unable to work because they are caring for a child who is self-isolating". Further details are expected to follow.
- International travel: Current restrictions on overseas travel remain, although a taskforce (a successor to the Global Travel Taskforce) will report on 12 April with recommendations aimed at facilitating a return to international travel as soon as possible, while managing the risk from imported cases and variants of concern. Following that report, the government will determine when international travel can resume, which will be no earlier than 17 May but noting that "restrictions like those in place across the world are likely to continue for the near future" .
- Financial support: Recognising that "jobs have inevitably been lost given the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic", the government will "carefully tailor the level of support to individuals and businesses to reflect the changing circumstances". Further detail will be set out in the budget on 3 March. It remains to be seen if this will see a further extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, although the government recognises that "it will not be possible to preserve every job or business" and it "will continue to help people to find jobs, acquire new skills or start new businesses as we build back better".
Covid status certification
The importance of the role that vaccinations have played and will continue to play in managing the virus is made clear. The government aims for everyone who is 50 and over, or at risk, to have been offered a first does of the vaccine by 15 April and for everyone aged 18 and over to have been offered a first does by 31 July. In addition to the reviews on social distancing and international travel, the government is also looking at how Covid status certification (testing or vaccination data) could be used in different settings to confirm that people have "a lower risk of transmitting Covid-19 to others". The government has stated that it will consider "ethical, equalities, privacy, legal and operational aspects of the approach and what limits if any should be place on organisations using certification". This is also a consideration for international travel. The government has also indicated that re-vaccination may be key in future years.
In the current circumstances, vaccinations remain a difficult area for employers to navigate and our webinar on 2 March will focus on the key considerations for employers.
Longer term initiatives
Addressing concerns that "the pain" of the Covid-19 pandemic has "not been felt equally", the government is committed to addressing the longer term implications of Covid-19 for communities, some of which were already disadvantaged before the pandemic. The government points to a number of examples throughout the roadmap – one example being staff in the hardest hit sectors, such as hospitality, who are more likely to be young, female, from an ethnic minority background and lower paid. As the government eases restrictions, it has committed to "ensure that those who have been worst hit by Covid-19 are protected and supported, and that the unequal impacts of Covid-19 continue to be addressed".
Do employers now have more certainty?
The government has made clear that it is being guided by data, not dates and that the dates earmarked in April, May and June are the "earliest" at which certain restrictions may be lifted. Any early delays will inevitably have a knock-on impact. The government has also expressly pre-empted the possibility of a variant of concern being identified which could pose "a real risk to the vaccination programme or public health" and explained that it will take a "highly precautionary approach, acting fast to address outbreaks". It has not ruled out "re-imposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to conain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine". However, with positive early signs from the vaccination roll-out, businesses and individuals now have a welcome structure to work from.