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Most COVID-19 related legal restrictions have, from 19 July 2021, been lifted in England. As such, employers will need to think carefully about the effect this will have on their business and workforce.

Generally, the main changes from 19 July 2021 are that:

  1. Businesses can open with no restrictions on the number of people attending, either indoors or outdoors; and
  2. There is no longer a legal requirement to wear face coverings – although we have seen a number of major employers such as Transport for London confirm that face masks will still be required in workplaces; and
  3. Social distancing guidance no longer applies, which means that social distancing will no longer be required at work; and
  4. The Government is no longer instructing people to work from home. The Government is clear, however, that whilst employers can “start to plan” a return to workplaces there is an expectation (and indeed a recommendation) that any such return is done gradually over the summer, particularly whilst the rate of positive COVID-19 cases remains high.

Sector specific guidance can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-covid-19

With the above being said, employers should remember that they still have obligations towards employees under the Health & Safety at Work Act and relevant regulations and there is still a legal duty upon them to manage risks to those individuals who have dealings with their business (including their staff).

Government advice and general best practice remains to include risks associated with COVID-19 in any health and safety risk assessments and to take reasonable steps to mitigate any identified risks. Employers should consider keeping practical and low-cost measures in place such as the continued provision and encouraged use of hand sanitiser, requiring the use of facemasks in communal areas, and practising social distancing where feasible. This will help employers go some way to discharging their duties under the Health & Safety Act in the context of the ongoing pandemic.

Employers will also need to consider a return to the workplace for those employees who have been working from home during recent lockdowns. Now that the “work from home” instruction has been removed if an employer simply allows continued homeworking without having previously made clear this was a temporary measure, there is a chance that an employee will be able to argue, after a period of time, that their place of work has changed to their home address. This would fundamentally make it much more difficult for an employer to then get the employee back into the office at a future date as it would require consultation on a further change to employment terms.

Communication is key here. Employers need to think very carefully about the impact of the recent changes made by the Government and how they will impact their business and their workforce. When decisions are made, these should be communicated to staff in a clear and concise method. It is highly likely that clear communication will lessen any possible influx of flexible working applications requesting to work from home.

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