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While not yet confirmed, the expectation is that the current emergency regulations will expire on 31 July 2021, even if the 19 July changes did not go ahead. The regulations currently in place cover self-isolation, face coverings, the requirement for visitors on premises to provide contact details in some settings, meetings and gatherings, and restrictions on how employers can operate. It is expected, however, that local authorities will retain the legal powers to require premises to close in order to control outbreaks until the end of September 2021.

While the restrictions are to be relaxed, meaning that certain measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing will no longer be mandatory, this gives individuals the freedom to make their own personal decisions around risk. Revised guidance and a major review of the current “Working Safely” guidance across sectors is expected to be published between the announcement and “Freedom Day” on 19 July 2021. Unfortunately, this does not give employers much time to review the guidance and make decisions on what impact this will have on them.

In reality, it is unlikely that the revised guidance will start too far away from the guidance currently in place and the new guidance is likely to recommend:

  1. Meeting in well-ventilated areas as far as possible, such as outdoors or indoors with windows open.
  2. Wearing a face covering where in contact with people in enclosed and crowded spaces.
  3. Washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitiser regularly throughout the day.
  4. A continuing cleaning regime in the workplace, ensuring that ‘touch points’ are regularly sanitised throughout the working day.
  5. An instruction to employees to stay at home if unwell, to reduce the risk of passing on other illnesses.
  6. Considering individual risks, such as clinical vulnerabilities and vaccination status.
  7. Testing when you have symptoms and targeted asymptomatic testing in education, high risk workplaces and to help people manage their personal risk.

Ultimately, the new guidance will represent a shift in responsibility for preventing outbreaks of the virus from government responsibility to individual employers. It is important for employers to bear in mind that the relaxation of restrictions does not alter their basic obligations under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. This is to take all reasonably practicable steps to reduce risks to the health and safety of employees, visitors and the public to its lowest reasonably practicable level. A failure to adhere to these obligations could leave an employer in a position where employees refuse to attend the workplace if they consider their health or safety to be in danger. If an employer was to remove all restrictions in their entirety and not implement a reworked risk assessment, or sought to take action against an employee who is reasonably refusing to attend a workplace free of restrictions, they could leave themselves exposed. It is currently unclear what, if any, enforcement powers the Government or Local Authorities will have if the guidance is not adhered to.

It would also be sensible for employers to start reviewing the COVID-19 risk assessments which were completed last year and replacing these with more general workplace risk assessments which include the virus as a significant risk but not the predominant risk.

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