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NEW UPDATE: Further to the Prime Minister’s announcement on 08 December, we have provided more up-to-date information here.

Original article below:

Face coverings

From 30 November 2021, the Government reintroduced measures to make it a legal requirement to wear face coverings, unless otherwise exempt, in certain settings. These settings include:

  • shops and shopping centres;
  • post offices;
  • banks;
  • estate and letting agents;
  • premises providing personal care and beauty treatments;
  • pharmacies;
  • veterinary clinics;
  • travel agents;
  • takeaways without space for consumption of food or drink on site;
  • public transport and transport hubs (including airports, train stations and ports).

Businesses where face coverings are required, must display signage or take other measures to ensure customers are aware of the requirement to wear a face covering, unless exempt. Staff within these settings are required to wear face coverings when they are in a public-facing area, unless they are otherwise exempt.

Those exempt from wearing face coverings include (but are not limited to):

  • children under the age of 11;
  • people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment or disability;
  • people for whom putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause severe distress;
  • people speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip-reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate.

Whilst it is not mandatory to wear a mask in workplaces such as offices or factories, Government advice is that this is best practice and that employers are encouraged to support staff in doing so.

Where necessary, the police have powers to enforce mandatory face coverings, including issuing fixed penalties of £200 for a first offence (reduced to £100 if the penalty is paid within 14 days). Repeat offenders will have the penalty doubled for each subsequent offence.

New self-isolation rules

The rules around when individuals are required to self-isolate have also changed in response to the discovery of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

It remains the case that individuals should self-isolate if they develop any of the main symptoms of COVID-19 (a high temperature; a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to sense of smell/taste), or if they test positive for COVID-19. Individuals must also now self-isolate if they live with or have been in contact with someone who may have the Omicron variant of COVID-19, even if they are fully vaccinated or unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons. NHS Test and Trace will contact individuals if that is the case.

Those employees who are required to self-isolate will either need to make arrangements to work from home, wherever that is possible or, where that is not possible, make use of any remaining annual leave. If an employee has exhausted their annual leave entitlement or chooses not to use annual leave and they cannot work from home, they might otherwise be entitled to Company or Statutory Sick Pay, depending on whether they meet the relevant eligibility criteria.

New quarantine rules for international arrivals

Quarantine rules for those entering England have also been updated.

Fully vaccinated travellers entering England from Green and Amber list countries must now take a COVID-19 PCR Test and they must quarantine in their home or the place they are staying whilst they wait for their test results. If the test comes back positive, or if it is unclear, they must self-isolate for a full 10 days from the date of the test. If the test comes back negative, they no longer have to self-isolate.

Those individuals entering England from Green and Amber list countries who are not fully vaccinated must take a COVID-19 test in the 3 days before they travel to England. They must also book and pay for a day 2 and day 8 COVID-19 test (to be taken after arrival in England) and complete a passenger locator form. If the day 2 test result is positive, individuals must isolate for 10 full days from the date they took the test. If the day 8 test is positive, they must then isolate for 10 full days from the day they took the day 8 test. If the day 2 test is negative, they must continue to quarantine and take the day 8 test. If the day 8 test is then negative, they can stop quarantine on either their 10th full day of isolation or the day they receive the day 8 test result (whichever is later).

The Government has also updated those countries on the Red List which (at the date of publication) includes: Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Those returning from a Red List country (whether fully vaccinated or not) must: take a COVID-19 test 3 days before they travel to England; quarantine for 10 full days in a managed quarantine hotel and take a COVID-19 test on or before day 2 and on or after day 8 of quarantining. Anybody caught breaking the rules may face a penalty of up to £10,000.

The upcoming holiday season

As we enter December, many are looking to plan festive activities. Following the announcement of the above rule changes, the hospitality industry has reported a sharp decline in bookings for work Christmas parties. Both the Prime Minister and Health Secretary have come out in recent days to say there is no need to reduce social activities over the festive period. However, this is in stark contrast to the Head of the UK Health Security Agency, Dr Jenny Harries, who made it clear that social contact should be reduced. At this stage, employers need not put a halt to all festive activities. Instead, it is best that they take a sensible and pragmatic approach to any such activities and ensure that all relevant mitigation measures are in place to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus.

Generally, as social contact and personal travel increases over December, employers should ensure that they have issued clear communications to staff setting out expectations around COVID-19 and the implications for failing to follow reasonable management requests.

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