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Government's back-to-work plan starts with "baby steps"

12 May 2020

The government has published guidance for employers to help them get their businesses back up and running while ensuring their workplaces are operating safely.

The new COVID-19 secure guidelines - developed in consultation with businesses and unions - are intended to give employers a "road map" out of lockdown and give employees the confidence to go back to work.

However, prime minister Boris Johnson has said that the measures are "baby steps" and he does not expect a flood of people to return to work immediately.

The new guidance covers eight workplace settings which are currently allowed to be open, from outdoor environments and construction sites to factories and takeaways. There is also guidance for shops that could begin a phased reopening from the beginning of June. However, guidance for other sectors that are not currently open has yet to be published.

There are five key messages for businesses and their employees:

  1. Employees should still work from home, if they can
    All reasonable steps should be taken by employers to help people work from home. Those that cannot work from home should go to work if their workplace is open.
  2. Businesses must carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment
    This must be done in consultation with workers or trade unions and employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website.
  3. Workspaces must allow social distancing of two metres
    Employers should re-design workspaces to allow social distancing, stagger start times, create one-way walk-throughs and open more entrances and exits.
  4. Where space is tight, employers should "manage transmission risk"
    This could include installing barriers and creating new shift patterns.
  5. Businesses must reinforce cleaning processes
    Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently and employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.

A downloadable notice should be displayed in workplaces to show employees, customers and other visitors that government guidelines have been followed.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has described the guidelines as "practical, workable and proportionate for small businesses". Craig Beaumont, FSB director of external affairs and advocacy, said: "It will be a long journey but this guidance will provide the basis for small employers to have the positive conversations needed with their staff. This is the first step to getting the economy back on its feet."

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said: "Safety is at the heart of business thinking. Unless people feel safe, employees won't return, customers will stay away and the restart will falter, harming livelihoods and public services. This guidance will help. It gives firms a clearer picture of how to reopen safely and gradually."

Jonathan Geldart, director general of the Institute of Directors (IoD), said: "Decisions on re-opening will not be taken lightly. Business leaders want to stand on their own two feet, but most can't operate at anything like normal capacity at the moment … making adjustments to protect staff and customers will be a big challenge for many workplaces."

Commenting on the guidelines, HR body the CIPD said that businesses should pass three tests before bringing their people back to work. These tests are: is it essential? Is it safe? And is it mutually agreed?

CIPD research has found that four in ten people are anxious about returning to work and there are concerns people could be forced back. CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said: "Government guidance and health and safety will only go so far; businesses must think about what is needed for their own organisation and the specific needs of their people. We have a long road ahead to get Britain back to work, but by taking the time to think through workplace protections and by engaging with staff, businesses will be in a much better position to bring people back at the right time and in the right way."

Written by Rachel Miller.

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