Although it was an inevitable consequence of a virulent new strain and the coming of winter, Coronavirus lockdown number three is taking its toll on an exhausted population. Despite the vaccine being rolled out at a galloping pace, being stuck at home during the dank, dreary days of mid-winter is filling few people with joy if the comments on internet forums and newspaper op-eds are to be believed.
However, much of the government’s mixed messaging that is causing frustration and confusion is the result of a much stronger and more positive strategy than was present during the March lockdown. Back in those scary days of early 2020, everyone, including scientists, healthcare workers, and politicians had little idea of what they were dealing with. So when a national lockdown was announced, the country (and indeed most of the world) simply shut up shop. Although initial estimates of a 14% drop in national output proved overly pessimistic, the actual figure of around £190 billion (a drop in GDP of 9.5%) was catastrophic for many industries and businesses.
Ten months on we have a better understanding of not only the virus, but how to keep as much of the economy running as possible whilst facilitating the extreme social distancing required. Schools have more children of key workers attending because not only has the definition of key worker been expanded, but fewer businesses are furloughing staff. The property market, construction, manufacturing – industries that ground to a halt in March, April, and May 2020 are continuing to operate. Furthermore, as always happens in a crisis, people quickly adapt and hunt out opportunities. Many small businesses have taken advantage of their agility and moved online and/or sought new markets abroad, resulting in some being busier now than they were pre-pandemic.
In light of the current dynamic situation, below are some factors which employers need to be aware of regarding the Job Retention Scheme and health and safety compliance, including pitfalls to watch out for.
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the Furlough Scheme) and government-backed loans
In December 2020, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak announced that the Furlough Scheme, in which the government pays 80% of a furloughed employee’s wages, will continue to the end of April 2021. Businesses will also be given until the end of March to access the Bounce Back Loan Scheme, Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, and the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme.
Watch out for – furlough fraud
Alongside the extension of the Furlough Scheme a parallel project is being run by HMRC to claw back funds that should not have been claimed during the first lockdown. Make sure you follow the rules of the scheme diligently, the most important being that furloughed employees must not work. To mitigate your risk of an HMRC investigation, ensure that you keep up to date records of who is receiving furlough payments and the funds distributed. The other area of concern is the rampant furlough fraud being committed by organised criminal gangs. Protect your business from being unwittingly caught up in such fraud by having documented new customer and supplier due diligence policies and procedures in place and communicated to all staff. In addition, rigorously monitor your business accounts/investments for any unusual activity.
Manging Coronavirus risks in the workplace
If your employees cannot work from home you must conduct a Coronavirus health and safety risk assessment at your premises/s and implement policies and procedures to ensure your staff and the public are protected. Not doing so could result in your organisation and its directors facing a regulatory investigation, personal injury or employment law claims, and even prosecution.
Acas advice regarding keeping your workplace safe is regularly updated. At a minimum, all employers should have regard to eight priority actions designed to protect employees and customers:
- Complete a Coronavirus risk assessment and share it with all staff.
- Encourage staff to wash their hands regularly, provide hand sanitisers, and clean surfaces frequently.
- Help with social distancing by putting a one-way walk system in place for staff and customers.
- Ensure that face coverings are worn by anyone visiting your workplace (unless they are medically exempt).
- Keep your workplace well ventilated. The HSE has provided excellent guidance on this.
- If applicable to your business, follow the legal requirement to keep a record of staff and customers attending your workplace and ensure that your method of data collection is compliant with the NHS track and trace system.
- Consider the mental health of you and your employees. Public Health England has produced useful guides on steps to improve mental health during this turbulent time.
- If an employee is required to self-isolate they must do so. Under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020, employers have a legal obligation to ensure staff they know have tested positive for Covid-19 or have been in close contact with somebody who has, do not come to work. Failure to comply with this law can result in a £1,000 fine for the first offence, rising to £10,000 for repeated offences. Workers must also inform employers if they are required to self-isolate.
Watch out for – breaching your duty of care to homeworkers
All employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety, and wellbeing of their employees and visitors to their workplace. This includes homeworkers. Ensure that you have homeworking staff conduct a risk assessment relating to their workstation setup. HSE has provided a useful checklist for this. Also, keep in regular contact with homeworkers to make sure they are not feeling isolated and stressed. Out of sight, out of mind could result in a future Employment Tribunal claim so check in regularly and give all employees a point of contact who they can call if they need support.
The government’s aggressive rollout of the vaccination programme provides hope that this will be the last big lockdown we have to battle through. For employers, navigating the ever-changing laws and guidance is a challenge in itself. Our team is here to support you and provide bespoke advice for your business. The cliché “it is always darkest before dawn” has been regularly bandied about over the past few weeks, but in this case, it is likely to be true.
To make an appointment to discuss any aspect of employment law please email or phone our helpdesk on (0)20 8349 0321.