COVID-19 – An assessment of safe working arrangements

As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, businesses must assess how their work environment and arrangements can be made safe for employees and visitors.

In response to the Government guidance, we have put together guidelines on the steps you may need to take as a business to provide safe working arrangements.

COVID-19 risk assessment

All employers with more than five members of staff must carry out and share with staff their written risk assessments. Employees should also be given clear, written guidelines on safe working.

Those with 50 or more employees are expected to publish this document on their website and display a signed poster, which can be found here.

Any risk assessment must consider and provide information on:

  • Scenarios that could lead to transmission of the virus
  • Steps a business may take to mitigate risk

Remember – As per the Government’s latest guidance, where possible, employees should continue to work from home if they can. This is particularly important for vulnerable groups.

As an employer, you have a legal duty to protect your employees and others that visit your business, from harm.

Precautions for those returning to work

Where possible you should try and ensure as many employees as possible can continue to work from home, as per the Government’s guidance.

Where employees cannot work from home, you should increase the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning to prevent the spread of this virus.

Staff must also maintain the two-metre social distancing guidelines and you should consider reconfiguring workspaces to help with this where required.

Where social distancing cannot be observed due to the work environment other measures may need to be taken.

Detailed guidance on the various precautions recommended for different workplaces can be found by clicking here.

We recommend that you read these guidelines and consider how you can incorporate these measures into your work arrangements.

Vulnerable employees and visitors

The Government has advised that all vulnerable individuals, such as those with underlying health conditions or in at-risk groups, should remain at home and not return to work.

Where this is not possible, you should ensure that additional caution is taken to observe social distancing rules.

You should continue to follow and monitor Government guidance to ensure vulnerable groups remain protected.

It is important that you do not discriminate against those required to self-isolate or shield, taking into consideration the protected characteristics defined under the Equality Act 2010 (e.g. due to their age or disability).

Allowances should also be given for those who live with or care for someone that is extremely vulnerable.

If you believe an employee may fit into one of these groups, we recommend that you speak with them to ensure the necessary steps can be taken to provide a safe work environment.

Cleaning procedures

All workspaces must be cleaned regularly, and, where possible, windows and doors should be opened regularly to encourage ventilation.

Care must also be taken in respect of the delivery of merchandise or goods that enter the workplace so that they can be cleaned to prevent the spread of the virus.

Where required, additional signage should be installed to remind employees to regularly wash their hands and use hand sanitiser/wash stations provided.

The working environment

As well as encouraging more frequent cleaning, you may be required to take additional measures around the workplace to ensure staff and visitor safety.

This may include:

  • Reducing movement by discouraging non-essential trips within buildings and sites, for example, restricting access to some areas, encouraging the use of telephones, where permitted, and cleaning them between use.
  • Reducing job and location rotation.
  • Introducing more one-way flow through buildings.
  • Regulating the use of high traffic areas including corridors, lifts, turnstiles and walkways to maintain social distancing.

Within specific work areas, you may also be required to:

  • Review layouts and processes to allow people to work further apart from each other.
  • Use floor tape or paint to mark areas to help workers keep to a two-metre distance.
  • Only where it is not possible to move workstations further apart, arranging people to work side by side or facing away from each other rather than face-to-face.
  • Only where it is not possible to move workstations further apart, using screens to separate people from each other.
  • Managing occupancy levels to enable social distancing.
  • Avoid the use of hot desks and spaces and, where not possible, for example, call centres or training facilities, cleaning and sanitising workstations between different occupants including shared equipment.

You should also consider common areas of the building, such as waiting areas and break rooms, and take actions to manage risk, including:

  • Staggering break times to reduce pressure on break rooms or canteens.
  • Using safe outside areas for breaks.
  • Creating additional space by using other parts of the workplace or building that have been freed up by remote working.
  • Installing screens to protect staff in receptions or similar areas.
  • Encouraging workers to bring their own food.
  • Reconfiguring seating and tables to maintain spacing and reduce face-to-face interactions.
  • Regulating the use of locker rooms, changing areas and other facility areas to reduce concurrent usage.
  • Encouraging storage of personal items and clothing in personal storage spaces, for example, lockers.

You should take these measures, and include them within your risk assessment, as and when required to maintain proper social distancing and to reduce the risk of infections.

Travel and commuting

Employees returning to work should be asked to avoid public transport where possible to reduce the spread of the virus.

Employees should also be reminded to maintain a distance of two metres if required to use public transport.

To assist with the travel to and from work, further measures may be taken including:

  • Staggering arrival and departure times at work to reduce crowding into and out of the workplace, taking account of the impact on those with protected characteristics.
  • Limiting passengers in corporate vehicles.
  • Reducing congestion, for example, by having more entry points to the workplace.
  • Using markings and introducing one-way flow at entry and exit points.
  • Providing handwashing facilities or hand sanitiser at entry and exit points and not using touch-based security devices such as keypads.
  • Defining process alternatives for entry/exit points where appropriate, for example, deactivating turnstiles requiring pass checks in favour of showing a pass to security personnel at a distance.

Employers should discuss any changes to travel arrangements if they believe it may affect their regular working hours.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings

As part of the risk assessment process, you should review the use of PPE and face coverings in the workplace and if they are required request that staff use the correct equipment.

If employees indicate that they would like to use a face covering at work, you should remind them to thoroughly wash their hands before putting a mask on or taking a mask off.

Face masks should also be replaced after each use. They do not replace the need for proper social distancing at all times.

Working arrangements 

Should you need to introduce shift patterns or change existing working arrangements as employees return to the workplace, you should give those workers affected plenty of notice beforehand.

If staff have any queries regarding a change to working arrangements, they should be encouraged to speak with you at the earliest opportunity to see how you can assist them.

Communication

Any changes to work arrangements or the work environment should be properly communicated with your employees and you are encouraged to consult with them, trade unions and health and safety representatives when preparing a risk assessment.

Once your risk assessment has been prepared you should share it with your employees so they are aware of the steps they need to take and the measures that you are introducing.

 

House moves and viewings can begin again in England

The Government has issued new guidance for England that will allow house moves and viewings to begin again from 13 May 2020.

Under the previous Government guidance, buyers and renters had been asked to delay moving home and estate agents had been asked not to conduct viewings while the “stay at home” advice was in place.

However, under the Government’s new updated lockdown regulations, viewings and moves will be allowed as long as social distancing guidelines are observed.

The rule change allows potential homebuyers and renters to visit homes, while anyone who has already bought a home but delayed their move, will be allowed to move in.

It is thought that more than 373,000 property sales have been frozen due to the crisis and it is now hoped that many of these can go ahead.

The Government confirmed that those waiting patiently to move can do so as long as it is carried out safely within the current rules.

Click here to read the official Government guidance

The new regulations are not mirrored in the property markets in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which remain shut for now.

Those looking to buy or sell homes in England should seek legal advice from a licensed conveyancing solicitor before doing so. To find out how our team of specialist solicitors can help you with your move.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) extended until October

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has confirmed that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) will be extended until the end of October, with no changes until the end of July when employers currently using the scheme will be able to bring back furloughed employees part time.

From August, the Government has said that furloughed workers will continue to receive 80 per cent of their usual salaries capped at £2,500. However, employers will have to make a currently unspecified contribution to this cost. Details of these arrangements are due to be published by the end of May.

The CJRS currently allows employers to retain employees on the PAYE payroll who are not carrying out work for them by placing them on furlough and to claim a grant of 80 per cent of a furloughed employee’s usual pay, plus employer National Insurance Contributions (NICS) and minimum employer auto-enrolment pension contributions.

The Chancellor said that since the scheme was launched in March, more than one million businesses have furloughed more than 7.5 million workers.

Frequently Asked Residential Property Questions during the COVID-19 crisis

The UK residential property sector has been adversely affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and landlords and tenants may wonder where they stand.

To assist tenants and landlords, the Government has introduced several temporary changes to legislation and issued a lot of guidance that attempts to cover a number of scenarios.

However, many tenants and landlords are still likely to have queries, which is why our experienced team have put together a list of questions and answers to help you navigate the obligations and rights of all parties.

Can a person be evicted for not paying rent?

New rules have been introduced by the Government that freeze repossession proceedings and evictions to ensure that tenants struggling to cover their rent are protected.

These changes have been active since 27 March 2020 and will last for 90 days.

The measure covers all private and social renters, as well as those with mortgages who face repossession by a lender.

To clarify the rules the Government has released additional guidance which confirms that:

  • There is a current backstop for the relevant direction so that it ceases to have any effect on 30 October 2020.
  • The delay imposed on possession proceedings does not apply to claims against trespassers.
  • Parties can make applications for case management directions, where both parties agree on them.

The delay does not prevent the issuing of claims and only prevents the progress of them via the courts.

Am I permitted to serve an eviction notice still?

Since 26 March 2020, temporary laws have required landlords to give renters three months’ notice if they intend to seek possession.

Notice periods have been extended accordingly, which will affect the date when court proceedings can be issued.

This protection covers most tenants in the private and social rented sectors in England and Wales including tenancies under the Rent Act 1977, the Housing Act 1985, the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Act 1988.

The provisions may be changed and the progress of proceedings may still be frozen for a longer period, subject to further amendment by the Government.

Are tenants legal required to still pay rent?

Government guidance tells tenants that they should continue to pay rent and abide by all other terms of their tenancy agreement during this period, where possible.

This means that rent levels set in a tenancy agreement remain legally due and so any unpaid rent will be accrued as arrears and require repayment.

Tenants have been provided with a strong package of financial support by the Government to ensure that they can continue to meet their housing costs. Where they can pay the rent as normal, they should do.

Tenants that are unable to pay rent must contact their landlord at the earliest opportunity to discuss the repayment of rent or alternative arrangements.

The moratorium on evictions does not allow for tenants to stop paying rent and they should be aware that landlords can take legal action in future to recover rent, including the repossession of the property.

My tenant is in arrears, what can I do? 

Landlord and tenants have been asked, where possible, to agree on a plan where tenants are struggling to pay their rent.

Options available to tenants and landlords include:

  • A temporary agreement not to seek possession action;
  • A reduction in rent; and/or
  • An agreement to repay arrears at a later date.

Where both parties agree to repay arrears, either via a one of payment or the spreading of arrears over the life of the lease, a landlord and tenant must agree to a plan in writing. All parties must abide by this arrangement and tenants must contact their landlord immediately if they are unable to do so.

Is there any additional support for buy-to-let landlords who rely on rental income to pay a mortgage? 

Lenders have extended the offer of a three-month mortgage holiday to buy-to-let mortgage holders. If you cannot make mortgage payment due to a reduction in income then you should speak to your lender or mortgage broker to arrange a payment holiday that meets your requirements.

Can I let an empty property and allow tenants to move in?

Movement into new properties should be avoided unless already underway and cannot be delayed, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Its guidance says a contract must have been agreed prior to the Government’s COVID-19 restriction measures, and be unable to be delayed, for a person to move in.

This makes it much more difficult to market a property at this time. If a tenant is required to move in, then they should limit the number of people involved to prevent the spread of the virus.

The social distancing restrictions also make viewings and identity verification much tougher.

Can I conduct check-ins and check-outs? How does this affect the return of deposits? 

Where a lease is due to end and you are required to conduct checks, these should involve as few people as possible. You will also need to consider the deposit. The Tenancy Deposit Scheme has published specific guidance on performing check-outs during the coronavirus pandemic, which can be found here.

Are property inspections still permitted? 

By law, landlords must ensure their property is in a fit state of repair, which is why they are required to perform inspections. These inspections may not be possible under the current Government guidance, particularly where a person is self-isolating or shielding because they or a loved one is vulnerable.

Where a tenant informs you that they are self-isolating it may be advisable to cancel any planned inspections and rearrange them for a suitable time in the future.

Where you can perform an inspection, this should be arranged or conducted while a person is out of the home. If you cannot avoid an inspection, make sure you take all necessary precautions and follow Government guidance. You should make sure any changes to your normal inspection schedule is clearly documented.

What if I need to perform repairs?

Tenants have a number of implied rights to certain important repairs. However, it may not be possible to undertake repairs at this time.

Under these circumstances, you must document the reason you cannot carry out the repair to ensure that you have evidence.

Essential works, such as work on water supplies, sanitation and the supply of electricity and heating must be addressed.

In these cases, landlords, their representatives and tradespeople must follow Government guidance on social distancing while undertaking repairs.

Do I still have to meet tenants in person to perform a right to rent check?

Landlords are required by law to conduct a right to rent check that involves meeting the adult occupiers of their property in person before the tenancy is signed. During this meeting, they must check that all adult occupiers have a right to rent in England.

The Government has temporarily amended the right to rent rules so that landlords can:

  • Ask the tenant to submit a scanned copy or a photo of their original documents electronically.
  • Video call the tenant and ask them to hold up the original documents while the landlord checks them against the digital copy sent to them.
  • Record the date the check was made and mark it as “an adjusted check has been undertaken on [date] due to COVID-19”

Checks performed in this way will have to be followed up by later check in-person to ensure they are compliant.

Can I still undertake gas safety checks? 

It is a legal requirement for a rented property to have an up to date gas safety certificate. The Government has confirmed that gas safety inspections can go on as they are essential works, as long as social distancing guidance is followed.

Gas Safe has published guidance on how safety inspections can be done, which can be found here.

New electrical safety certificates were due to be introduced, are these still required? 

Landlords will still have to have a qualified person inspect their property and provide an electrical installation report before 1 July 2020 for any new tenancies.

If this isn’t possible, landlords are advised to keep records of their attempts to arrange inspections and any obstructions that prevented one from being undertaken.

My energy performance certificate (EPC) is about to expire, should I renew it? 

It is only a legal requirement to obtain a valid EPC when a property is being marketed and a new tenancy begins.

Where no new tenancy is due to begin, landlords are allowed to let an EPC lapse until the property is ready to be re-occupied.

Got more questions?

We understand that you may have questions that are specific to your own requirements and challenges. Our team of residential property experts are standing by to offer support and advice.

 

Reflections on divorce and financial remedies after lockdown

Last week we hosted a webinar with guest speaker Max Lewis of 29 Bedford Row, where we discussed financial remedies on divorce and the future for family practitioners after lockdown which Graeme summarises for readers in this update.

The financial impact of the lockdown could lead to a spike in marriage rates, as well as divorce rates. We should not read too much into a surge in divorce filing in Wuhan immediately after lockdown. This is because remote filing is not possible in Wuhan and therefore the filing that took place on the first day resulted from the 3 month wait to leave the house. It is also believed that marital preservation is an immediate response to mortal threat which relaxes once the threat is less acute. People refrain from making major life changes under conditions of extreme stress, uncertainty and threat.

The impact of the lockdown may mean that those who were planning further children to delay. Once the lockdown has ended, there will be a return to social life, and the opportunities for marital infidelity. However, because Covid-19 will be in the community after lockdown ends, there will continue to be much uncertainty.

In order to reopen new cases, there must have been new events since the order which invalidate the basis or fundamental assumption on which the order was made, the events should have occurred within a relatively short time of the order being made, mainly not more than a few months, and the application should be made promptly (Barder). The turning point for the lockdown would appear to have been 22 February, when a dozen Italian towns in Northern Italy closed schools and businesses, so the time frame remains short perhaps back to the Summer of 2019.

Differences in value can arise however through “natural process of price fluctuation” which however dramatic can still fall within this principle (Cornick). This means that “what has soared may plunge and what has plunged may soar again”(Myerson) to the extent that shares that are not liquidated may mean that losses are not crystallised.

Where a settlement provides for a clean break, the Court retains complete jurisdiction until the order is put into effect (Thwaite). If there is some significant change in circumstances since the order was made, the Court may have jurisdiction to adjust a final order (L v L). Where any such revision is made, it should reflect the underlying and original intention of the parties (US v SR)

However, the assessment of assets must be those available at trial (Cowan) and this is the usual rule unless serious injustice would be demonstrated (FZ v SZ). It is entirely predictable that company or property valuers, be they accountants or surveyors, will soon be saying soon that it is quite impossible to put any meaningful figure on the value.

Applications for variation under S31 seem very likely, particularly in relation to income orders. Where orders for sale are being varied, that is likely to relate as much to the  process of the sale rather than the distribution of the sale proceeds.

Traditionally, the approach towards variation was to look at everything de novo (Lewis v Lewis) but the modern approach means that a light touch review is used where appropriate (Morris v Morris).

Issues likely to arise in future cases include earning capacity. Some sectors are more vulnerable than others as we emerge from lockdown. There may be arguments about schools and the payment of school fees. Can schools afford to continue if parents don’t pay fees? This is likely to further encourage use of term orders. Remote mediation seems a greater possibility in the sense that the couple need not be in the same room.

The early signs are that there are downsides to remote litigation, for example, being unable to look people in the eyes. The use of remote litigation is likely to be here to stay for directions appointment. Some of the technology has been a great success including electronic bundles, which may lead to greater e-disclosure and better use of document management software.

For future information or if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Government funding for victims of domestic abuse

The government announces this week that it will pledge £76 million of funding to help support the victims of domestic abuse, a decision that has been welcomed by many including myself as a family solicitor. Whilst this is welcome start, it has been long overdue and comes at a time were many have been forced to adhere to lockdown measures and isolate with their abusive partner.

Government resources and funding for those suffering domestic abuse has been scarce, long overdue and insufficient for far too long now. It is a shame that it has taken the pandemic to shed light on the prevalence of domestic abuse and the fact that it occurs across all kinds of households and within many different familial relationships. I very much hope the Government maintains its support and focus on this issue once lockdown measures are eased but domestic abuse continues throughout our communities. It is important to note that whilst domestic abuse is overwhelmingly perpetrated against women and girls, it can also affect men and there have been a growing number of domestic abuse cases to illustrate this.

Those experiencing domestic abuse should know that they are not alone and they have a number of options available to them, during this pandemic and beyond it. Their safety, and those of any children, is the paramount consideration. I as a family solicitor understand that sensitive situations like this are complex and therefore require a tailored approach depending on the circumstances of each case.

We are here and able to assist you with legal advice that is best for you and your family.

Bounce Back Loan scheme is now live – apply today

The Government’s new Bounce Back Loan scheme (BBLS) has now gone live online and is open for applications. 

This new scheme is aimed specifically at small to medium-sized businesses looking to borrow a smaller amount to assist them with cash flow and other issues.

Key Features 

  • Businesses can borrow up to 25 per cent of their turnover, from £2,000 up to a maximum loan amount of £50,000.
  • Unlike the Coronavirus Business Loan scheme (CBILS), the BBLS is 100 per cent backed by the Government – ensuring that loans can be provided with fewer checks to more businesses. 
  • The BBLS is being administered by the British Business Bank and the loans will be provided by accredited lenders (find details of accredited lenders by clicking here).
  • There will be no interest or repayments due on BBLS finance for 12 months, and after this period the Government has agreed to a low fixed interest rate of 2.5 per cent.
  • The length of the loan is for six years but early repayment is allowed, without early repayment fees.
  • There will also be no guarantee or administration fees, or any requirements for personal guarantees.
  • Businesses that have already acquired finance of less than £50,000 from the CBILS can transfer into the BBLS. 
  • Despite the backing of the Government, borrowers will remain 100 per cent liable for the debt from the finance. 

Eligibility

The BBLS is open to businesses from most sectors and those applying must be able to self-certify the following to lenders:

  • It is UK-based in its business activity and established by 1 March 2020;
  • It has been adversely impacted by the Coronavirus (Covid-19);
  • It is not currently using a government-backed Coronavirus loan scheme (unless using BBLS to refinance a whole facility);
  • It was not a business in difficulty at 31 December 2019; and
  • It is not in bankruptcy, liquidation or undergoing debt restructuring.

Some organisations are excluded from BBLS finance, this includes:

  • Credit institutions (falling within the remit of the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive)
  • Public sector bodies, 
  • State-funded primary or secondary schools 
  • Insurance companies.

Application Process 

Once a business has selected an accredited lender via the British Business Bank website here, they will be required to fill in a short online application form on their chosen lender’s website.

This self-certifies that they are eligible for a Bounce Back Loan facility. The bank will then undertake standard customer fraud, Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC) checks.

If the bank is satisfied that the borrower meets the conditions of the BBLS then they should be able to release funds within a matter of days – in some cases within 24 hours. 

To start the BBLS application process please click here

It may be best to make the first application with a bank which the business has an existing relationship with, as some banks have said they are only currently entertaining applications from existing clients.

If one lender turns a business down, they can still approach other lenders within the scheme.

BBLS is designed to be fast for lenders to process and quick and easy for businesses to access, which is you will only be required to fill out a short application form online for each new lender. 

Here to help

If you need advice or support with finance for your business as a result of the current crisis, please contact our team.