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  Coronavirus (COVID-19) FAQS

 

 Issues at work/on returning to work

- Health and safety measures
- Employees unable or unwilling to attend work
- Managing employees during the pandemic
- Data protection during the panademic

 Furlough under the Coronavirus job retention scheme (Original form)
 Furlough under the revised Coronavirus job retention scheme
 Lay-off and short-time working
 Financial support for your business

Disclaimer: These FAQs are intended to provide information and guidance on the HR and employment law implications of the Covid-19 situation. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. 


Health and safety measures

Last updated: 17/09/2020

1. What businesses are required to remain closed? (Last updated 17/09/2020)

Certain non-essential businesses – primarily retail and leisure establishments (a list is available here) were required to close on 23 March in order to help slow the spread of Covid-19.

On 10 May, the Prime Minister gave a speech setting out proposals to gradually lift lockdown measures, in which he encouraged people who could not work from home to return to the workplace, provided that they can travel to work safely and that the workplace can be made safe for them to carry out their jobs. We discuss the safety measures that employers may need to put in place below.

The Government is continuing to gradually ease lockdown measures and most businesses are being permitted to reopen with appropriate safety measures in place. However, it is important to note that under current guidance some businesses must still remain closed for the time being. Note also that the Government’s plans to gradually lift lockdown measures only cover England. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate powers over the lockdown measures in their respective nations and they are proceeding to gradually lift lockdown measures at their own pace. The guidance in these FAQs covers the position in England only.

In addition, note that some businesses may be required to close again temporarily if a local lockdown is imposed in an area of the country which has seen an increase in Covid-19 cases. These FAQs do not cover local lockdowns. (A list of areas subject to local restrictions is available here.)

2. What are the safety requirements for businesses that have remained open, or that are now reopening? (Last updated 17/09/2020)

Businesses that were not ordered to close, including manufacturers, have been permitted to continue operating throughout the coronavirus pandemic, provided they could do so safely. Some manufacturers therefore remained operational, while others closed, e.g. due to a reduction in demand for their products.

It is vital for all businesses, whether they had previously closed or remained open throughout, to follow applicable Government guidance on working safely during the pandemic. On 11 May, the Government published its plans to gradually ease lockdown measures and, with that sector-specific guidance on working safely in various different settings. The guidance that is most relevant to manufacturers focuses on work in factories, plants and warehouses. Employers will need to fully digest the guidance, which contains practical steps to enable employers to identify the risks that Covid-19 creates and to take pragmatic measures to mitigate them.

When considering what measures they need to put in place, it is important for employers to remember that the underlying law on employment, health and safety obligations and discrimination has not changed. Employers should therefore continue to comply with their legal obligations. The Government guidance on working safely during Covid-19 is non-statutory, i.e. it does not have legal force. However, it will be necessary for employers to take this guidance into account when complying with their existing legal obligations – and indeed, the guidance refers to the legal requirements employers must follow under health and safety law.

Employers will need to translate the guidance into specific actions – what actions are required will depend on the nature of the business, as well as its size, type and how it is organised, managed and regulated. Employers who have continued operating throughout the pandemic are likely to have gone through a lot of the required thinking already, but are encouraged to use the guidance to identify any further improvements they should make. Under this guidance, employers must make every reasonable effort to ensure their employees can work safely. 

As lockdown measures first began to ease, the advice was that anyone who could work from home should continue to do so. However, from 1 August, the Government has indicated that ‘working safely’ may mean working from home, but it could alternatively mean working in the workplace if Covid-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. See the FAQs on ‘Managing employees during the pandemic’, for points you should consider in relation to temporary home-working arrangements. Note also that anyone who has symptoms of Covid-19, lives with/is in a support bubble with someone who has symptoms of Covid-19, has been advised to do so under the NHS test and trace programme has been advised to do so by a medical practitioner in advance of an operation, or is required to quarantine following return from overseas travel, must still self-isolate at home – see the FAQs on ‘Employees unable or unwilling to attend work’, for details.

Below, we consider the main themes of the guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses. The content set out below is accurate based on the guidance as at 17September. We will endeavour to keep it up to date, but employers need to regularly check the guidance on the Government website, as it may well change as understanding of the virus increases, or as we move further along in the Government’s plans to gradually ease lockdown measures. The Government has indicated that employers can check for updates here.

Priority actions to take

The guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses opens with a section entitled “Priority actions to take – what businesses need to do to protect staff and customers”. This lists seven key steps that employers should implement:

  • Complete a Covid-19 risk assessment and share it with your staff.
  • Clean more often – especially surfaces that are touched frequently, and ask staff and visitors to use hand sanitiser and wash their hands frequently.
  • Ask customers or visitors to wear face coverings where required to do so by law, although be aware that there are some exemptions.
  • Make sure everyone is social distancing and make it easy for them to do so, e.g. using signs and a one-way system.
  • Increase ventilation by keeping doors and windows open where possible and running ventilation systems at all times.
  • Take part in NHS Test and Trace by keeping a record of all staff, contractors and visitors for 21 days. 
  • Turn people with coronavirus symptoms away from your premises, as they should be self-isolating.

These steps are explained in greater detail in the guidance and we cover them further below. 

With regard to the recommendation to take part in NHS Test and Trace by keeping a record of staff, contractors and visitors, we note that the guidance states that “this will be enforced in law” from 18 September. However, it appears from the relevant regulations that the legal requirement to keep records of staff, contractors and visitors only applies in the hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors and to providers of close contact services such as hairdressers, beauticians, etc. We assume that the reference to legal enforcement appears in the guidance for factories, plants and warehouses because the seven key steps listed in the “Priority actions to take” section have not been tailored by sector. Although manufacturers are not legally required to keep records of staff, contractors and visitors for the purpose of assisting NHS Test and Trace, it may still be a sensible step to take. We discuss this further below, under ‘Customers, visitors and contractors’ and ‘Shift patterns and working groups’.

Similarly, with regard to the recommendation to request that customers or visitors wear face coverings where required to do so by law, it is worth noting that factories, plants and warehouses are not on the list of indoor premises in which it is currently mandatory to wear a face covering. We assume that the reference to a legal requirement to wear a face covering appears in the guidance for factories, plants and warehouses because the seven key steps listed in the “Priority actions to take” section have not been tailored by sector. That said, storage and distribution facilities do appear on that list, so if you have any visitors to those parts of your premises, you should request that they wear a face covering – and you may wish to ask visitors to other parts of your site to do so as well, as a precaution. 
 
Although the seven key steps listed in the “Priority actions to take” section of the guidance are not tailored by sector, the section does identify five further points that it says employers operating factories, plants and warehouses should be aware of:
  • Only use PPE where appropriate – when managing the risk of Coronavirus, additional PPE beyond what you usually use is not beneficial in most situations.
  • Work with the same team every day, using fixed teams or shift patterns to reduce the number of people each person has contact with.
  • Arrange work spaces to keep staff apart, for example by using barriers between workstations or back-to-back or side-to-side working.
  • Take care with inbound and outbound goods, minimising deliveries and frequency of handling.
  • Keep music and other background noise to a minimum to prevent people from speaking loudly or shouting.

These points are also expanded upon below.

Risk assessments and consultation

Before restarting work, employers should ensure the safety of the workplace by:

  • carrying out a risk assessment in line with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance;
  • consulting with your workers or trade unions; and
  • sharing the results of the risk assessment with your workforce and on your website.

These essential steps are explained in detail in the guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses.

The guidance highlights the duty employers have under health and safety law to do everything reasonably practicable to minimise risks to their staff. It does acknowledge, however, that it will not be possible for employers to completely eliminate the risk of Covid-19.

Employers will need to conduct a risk assessment of their workplace to identify the safety measures that they should put in place. The guidance specifies that the risk assessment must be done in consultation with the health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union or, if you do not have a recognised union, a representative chosen by your workers. However, we note that, if you do not have a recognised union, you can satisfy the legal requirement to consult by engaging with the workers directly; you are not strictly required to consult with a representative.
 
Involving your employees in the risk assessment can be beneficial, as it enables you to listen to their concerns and shows that you take their health and safety seriously. Since they are the ones who do the work, they will also have the clearest knowledge and understanding of particular risk areas. They can help you to identify what different cohorts of employees do in the workplace (where do they go? what surfaces do they touch? who do they come into contact with?) to give you a practical view of the areas of risk for each cohort and allow you to identify what safety measures will be most effective to reduce those risks. Employers are encouraged to have individual discussions with their employees where reasonable, including those who have previously been shielding and who may therefore now be returning to the workplace, to consider any uncertainties they have about the precautions you have put in place to make the workplace Covid-secure.

Note that the guidance also provides that you should share the results of your risk assessment with your workforce and recommends that you consider publishing them on your website, noting that employers with 50 or more employees will be expected to do this. Some employers may be reluctant to publish their full risk assessments on a public-facing website, since doing so could invite detailed scrutiny, and perhaps unfair criticism, from those who are not familiar with the business or its health and safety processes. Employers may therefore take the view that the guidance’s recommendation to publish the “results of” a risk assessment enables them to limit publication to a summary only. One positive aspect of publishing your risk assessment, or a summary of it, on your public-facing website is that it could reassure those with whom you do business that you have safe systems of work in place. It is important to note that the guidance requires that employees should be involved in assessing workplace risks and that you should share the results of your risk assessment with your workforce. Full involvement of your employees creates a culture of confidence where relationships between employers and workers are based on collaboration, trust and joint problem solving. The guidance indicates that employers should demonstrate to their workers that they have properly assessed their risks and taken measures to mitigate them, and suggests displaying a notification in a prominent place in the workplace to do so.

The HSE has produced guidance on talking with your workers about working safely during the coronavirus pandemic. This guidance notes that as well as consulting with workers (or their union or health and safety representatives) before a return to work, you may need to revisit your discussions with them soon after return to make sure that health and safety measures are working and are being followed. The guidance also provides some suggested questions you may find it helpful to ask staff/their representatives to consider during any consultation.

In common with the HSE guidance, the Government guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses flags that your risk assessment should be reviewed from time to time to make sure that the measures you have put in place are working, or if there are changes in the workplace that could lead to new risks.

Note also that the Government guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses highlights the HSE’s power to take enforcement action where an employer fails to complete a risk assessment which takes account of Covid-19, or completes a risk assessment but fails to put in place sufficient measures to manage the risk of Covid-19. 

Who should come to work 

When considering who should come to work, employers are encouraged to ensure that workplaces are safe while also enabling working from home. The guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses recommends that employers consult with their employees to determine who can come into the workplace safely from 1 August, taking account of a person’s use of public transport, childcare responsibilities, protected characteristics and other individual circumstances. Employers should give extra consideration to those people at higher risk.  

Where it is decided that employees should come into the workplace then this will need to be reflected in the employer’s risk assessment (see above) and the employer will need to take appropriate actions to manage the risks of transmission in line with the Government guidance. 

The guidance flags that the decision to return to the workplace must be made in meaningful consultation with employees (including through trade unions or employee representative groups where they exist). This means engaging in an open conversation about returning to the workplace before any decision to return has been made and should include a discussion of the timing and phasing of any return and any risk mitigations that have been implemented. The guidance emphasises the importance of employers engaging with employees to ensure they feel safe returning to work, and notes that they should not force anyone into an unsafe workplace.

For some employees, working from home will remain the most appropriate way of working safely. In this regard, the guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses notes that employers should: 

  • monitor the wellbeing of employees who work from home and help them to stay connected to the rest of the workforce (especially where the majority of their colleagues are on-site);
  • keep in touch in relation to their welfare, mental and physical health and personal security; and 
  • provide all necessary equipment for people to work from home safely and effectively (including, for example, remote access to work systems). 
When deciding who should come to work, the guidance recommends that employers take into account the following points:
 
  • Consider the maximum number of people who can be safely accommodated at the workplace and plan for a safe and effective phased return to the workplace as appropriate. 
  • There is a report by Public Health England that shows that certain groups of people may be more at risk of contracting Covid-19, or of suffering serious illness if they do contract it. Higher risk groups identified in the report include: older males; those who have a high body mass index (BMI); those with health conditions such as diabetes; and individuals from some Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. The guidance highlights that employers should consider this as part of their risk assessment, but does not go so far as to recommend that employers avoid having these higher risk individuals in the workplace at all. If you are considering bringing employees in identified vulnerable groups back to the workplace, you may wish to take advice on your particular circumstances.  
  • Individuals who are considered ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ (i.e. those who are shielding) have been strongly advised not to work outside the home during the pandemic peak and only return to work when community infection rates are low. (Note that from 1 August the guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals has been relaxed so that they are no longer advised to shield. Accordingly, from 1 August, if they cannot work from home, these individuals can return to the workplace provided that their workplace is Covid-secure in accordance with available guidance. That said, individuals who have been shielding are advised to remain cautious after 1 August as they are still at risk of severe illness if they catch coronavirus, so the advice is to stay at home where possible – including continuing to work from home if they can – and, if they do go out, follow strict social distancing).
  • If clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (i.e. those who have previously been shielding) cannot work from home, you should offer them the option of the safest available on-site roles, which enable them to remain 2 metres away from others, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable. It may be appropriate for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals to take up an alternative role or adjusted working patterns temporarily.  
  • You should also pay particular attention to employees who live with someone who is considered clinically extremely vulnerable. 
  • As noted above, anyone who has symptoms of Covid-19, lives with/is in a support bubble with someone who has symptoms of Covid-19, or has been advised to do so under the NHS test and trace programme, must still self-isolate at home in accordance with Government guidance. (Although not specifically mentioned in the guidance on working safely, it is worth noting that anyone who returns to the UK from abroad is required to self-isolate for a 14 day quarantine period unless an exemption applies  – see our FAQs on ‘Managing employees during the pandemic’).
  • You must understand and take account of your specific legal obligations to those with protected characteristics (i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, marital/civil partnership status, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation and pregnancy/maternity). In particular, you should involve and communicate appropriately with workers whose protected characteristics might expose them to a different degree of risk, or might make any steps you are considering taking inappropriate or challenging for them. You should consider whether you need to put in place any particular measures or adjustments to take account of your duties under the equalities legislation – for example, making reasonable adjustments to avoid disabled workers being put at a disadvantage and making sure that the steps you take don’t have an unjustifiable negative impact on some groups compared to others.  

When considering the above, it is also worth taking account of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance on avoiding discrimination when making decisions in the context of Covid-19, e.g. in relation to which employees are required to come in to work, or what working arrangements you put in place. 

Social distancing at work 

Social distancing in the workplace (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable) must be maintained wherever possible. The points we discuss below are dealt with in detail in the guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses.

The guidance flags that social distancing requirements apply to all parts of your business, not just employees’ workstations. Areas such as entrances, exits, toilets, break rooms, canteens and similar settings are often the most challenging areas to maintain social distancing.

Where it is not possible to follow social distancing guidelines in full in relation to a particular activity, you should consider whether that activity must continue if the business is to continue to operate. If so, the guidance indicates that you must take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between staff.

Such actions could include:

  • further increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning; 
  • keeping the activity time involved as short as possible; 
  • using screens or barriers to separate people from each other; 
  • using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible; and 
  • reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others). 

In order to maintain social distancing and reduce risk on arrival and departure, the guidance recommends: 

  • staggering arrival and departure times to reduce crowding at entrances and exits; 
  • providing extra parking spaces, or facilities such as bike racks to help people travel to work on foot or by bike where possible;
  • limiting passenger numbers in company vehicles such as a work minibus – potentially by leaving some seats empty; 
  • using additional entrances and exits to reduce congestion;
  • operating a one-way system at entry and exit points using floor markings to identify this; 
  • providing handwashing facilities or hand sanitiser at entrances and exits; and
  • maintaining use of security access devices such as keypads or passes but adjusting processes at entry and exit points to reduce the risk of transmission, e.g. cleaning pass readers regularly and asking staff to hold their passes above pass readers rather than touching them. 

When moving around the workplace, the guidance suggests the following steps to help maintain social distancing: 

  • discouraging non-essential travel around the site by restricting access to certain areas or encouraging the use of radios or telephones (and cleaning them between use); 
  • reducing job and equipment rotation; 
  • operating one-way flow through buildings and regulating the use of high traffic areas such as corridors and walkways;
  • encouraging the use of stairs, reducing maximum occupancy for lifts (while ensuring that people with disabilities can still access lifts) and providing hand sanitiser for the operation of lifts; and
  • reducing occupancy of vehicles used for on-site travel such as shuttle buses. 

With regard to social distancing at workstations, the guidance recommends: 

  • assigning a workstation to individual employees if possible – or, if sharing is necessary, ensuring that workstations are shared by the fewest people possible; 
  • reviewing layouts and processes to allow people to work further apart from each other; 
  • using floor markings to help employees maintain social distancing (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable); 
  • if it is not possible to move workstations further apart, implement working side-by-side or facing away from each other rather than face-to-face, and install screens to separate employees; and
  • if employees have to work closely together, e.g. in lifting or maintenance activities that require two people, use a consistent pairing system to ensure employees come into contact with as few people as possible. 

Social distancing should also be maintained in meetings, wherever possible. The guidance suggests: 

  • using remote working tools to avoid in-person meetings; 
  • only having necessary participants attend meetings and maintaining social distance throughout (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable);
  • avoiding sharing pens and other objects; 
  • providing hand sanitiser in meeting rooms; 
  • holding meetings outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms; and 
  • using floor markings to help people maintain social distancing in areas which are regularly used for meetings. 

It can be tricky to maintain social distancing during staff break times. To assist with this, the guidance recommends: 

  • staggering break times to reduce pressure on break rooms and places to eat;
  • using safe outside areas for breaks; 
  • creating additional break room space by using other parts of the site, or areas that may have been freed up if you have some staff working remotely;
  • using protective screens for staff in reception and other common areas;
  • providing packaged meals to avoid opening staff canteens if you can; 
  • reconfiguring seating areas to maintain distance and reduce face-to-face interactions; 
  • encouraging employees to remain on-site during working hours; and 
  • considering the use of floor markings and signage for common areas such as toilets, lockers, etc. and other areas where queues typically form.     

The guidance acknowledges that it may be unsafe for people to comply with social distancing guidelines in an emergency situation such as an accident or a fire and states that safety should be the priority during such incidents. It does, however, emphasise that people involved in assisting others should pay special attention to hygiene measures afterwards, including washing their hands. The guidance recommends that employers review their incident and emergency procedures to ensure they reflect social distancing principles as much as possible, but flags that any changes to such practices may present new or altered security risks that may need to be mitigated.   

Customers, visitors and contractors 

The guidance flags the importance of minimising unnecessary visits to factories, plants and warehouses. It suggests encouraging remote meetings where possible, limiting the number of visitors on the premises at any time and revising schedules for essential service visits to reduce interaction and overlap between visitors. 
 
It also recommends maintaining a record of visitors if possible and reviewing visitor entry and exit routes to minimise their contact with others, as well as cooperating with other occupiers if you operate from shared premises. With regard to maintaining records of visitors, note that the Government has introduced regulations requiring establishments in certain sectors (such as hospitality, tourism, close contact services and facilities provided by local authorities) to collect specific information from visitors – including name, contact details and date/time of their visit – and keep that information for 21 days in order to support the NHS test and trace programme. While the legal requirement to collect such information does not apply to most businesses in the manufacturing sector, you may wish to consider putting in place similar measures in respect of visitors to your sites. If you do so, you may find it useful to refer to the guidance that the Government has produced for sectors that are covered by those regulations. In order to comply with the GDPR, businesses that collect such information for this purpose will need to ensure that they: inform visitors what their data will be used for; store the data securely; only use it for the purpose of supporting NHS test and trace; and dispose of it securely after 21 days. The ICO has produced guidance on this. (Also note that the guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses does recommend keeping records of staff shift patterns to assist NHS test and trace – see ‘Shift patterns and working groups’, below.)
 
In order to ensure visitors understand what they need to do to stay safe on your site, the guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses advises that you provide clear guidance on social distancing and hygiene to visitors – both via phone or email before they arrive, and via signage on arrival. It also recommends establishing host responsibilities relating to Covid-19 and providing training to staff who act as hosts for visitors. 

Cleaning and ventilation in the workplace

If your workplace has been closed, you will need to assess all parts of the site and take certain steps before you can reopen. These include checking whether you need to adjust your ventilation system to ensure it doesn’t automatically reduce ventilation if your occupancy levels are lower than normal. Although most air conditioning systems do not need adjustment, you may need to seek advice from an engineer, particularly if your system serves multiple buildings. 
 
To ensure that the workplace is kept clean and prevent transmission by touching contaminated surfaces, you should ensure that work areas and equipment are cleaned frequently between uses and should pay particular attention to objects and surfaces that are touched regularly such as door handles, pump handles and printers. You should put cleaning procedures in place for all shared equipment, such as tools and vehicles – including vehicles that employees take home. You should also encourage increased handwashing (providing additional facilities where you can) for employees who handle goods and merchandise, as well as clearing workspaces and removing waste and belongings from work areas at the end of each shift. 

It is also important to maintain good ventilation in the work environment, for example by: 

  • adjusting fan speeds to increase ventilation rates;
  • operating your ventilation system when there are people in the building;
  • monitoring and managing filters in accordance with manufacturer instructions;
  • keeping windows and doors open, if possible; and
  • using ceiling fans or desk fans to improve air circulation, provided there is good ventilation.
In order to help all employees maintain good hygiene, the guidance recommends:
 
  • using signage and posters to remind employees to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly, avoid touching their face, etc;
  • providing hand sanitiser in multiple locations around the workplace and providing hand drying facilities – either paper towels or hand dryers – at hand washing facilities, as well as more waste facilities and frequent rubbish collection;
  • establishing use and cleaning guidance for toilet facilities, as well as any showers, lockers and changing rooms, to ensure they are kept clean and clear of personal items and to maintain social distancing as much as possible;
  • enhancing cleaning for busy areas and for all shower and changing facilities both during the day and at the end of the day; and
  • providing extra non recycling bins for workers and visitors to dispose of single use face coverings and PPE, following applicable guidance on how to dispose of personal or business waste. 

Earlier sector specific guidance for manufacturers had recommended pausing production during the day to allow cleaning staff to wipe down workstations with disinfectant. This guidance is no longer available online, but some employers may still find this suggestion helpful.

It is also worth noting the NHS guidance on hand washing and hygiene, which you may wish to highlight to your employees.   

If you are cleaning following a known or suspected case of Covid-19 in the workplace, then you should refer to the specific guidance on cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and face coverings

The guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses states that where you already use PPE in your work activity to protect against non-Covid-19 risks, you should continue to do so. 

However, PPE beyond what employees usually wear is not beneficial. This is because Covid-19 is a different type of risk from the risks normally faced in a workplace and (other than in clinical settings such as hospitals, for specific roles for which Public Health England advises the use of PPE, or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19) this risk needs to be managed through social distancing, hygiene and fixed teams or partnering, not through the use of PPE. 

Unless your risk of Covid-19 transmission is very high, the guidance considers the role of PPE in providing additional protection to be very limited. However, if your risk assessment concludes that PPE is required, then you must provide it free of charge to workers who need it and ensure it fits properly. 

The guidance acknowledges that there is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from Covid-19. However, it notes that a face covering is not an alternative for employees who wear a visor in close contact services and flags that a face covering is different from the surgical masks used in healthcare settings and from the PPE used to manage dust and spray risks in factories. The guidance takes the view that face coverings are not a replacement for other ways of managing risk, such as minimising contact with others and enhancing cleaning processes. 

Wearing a face covering is required by law when travelling as a passenger on public transport in England and in a variety of indoor premises, unless an exception applies. (Exceptions include where: an individual is unable to put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness, impairment, or disability; putting on, wearing, or removing a face covering would cause an individual severe distress; or someone is travelling with or providing assistance to a person who relies on lip reading to communicate. The full list of exceptions is included in the Government guidance on face coverings).

In other circumstances, wearing a face covering is encouraged in enclosed public spaces where individuals encounter people they do not normally meet, but is not required by law. 

If employees choose to wear a face covering, employers should support them to do so safely, including by reminding employees to: 

  • wash their hands before putting on the face covering and after taking it off and avoid touching their face; 
  • change the face covering daily, or if it becomes damp or they have touched it; 
  • wash the face covering in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions or, if it is not washable, dispose of it carefully; and
  • practise social distancing wherever possible. 

The guidance also highlights the need to be mindful that the wearing of a face covering may inhibit communication with people who rely on lip reading, facial expressions and clear sound.

Shift patterns and working groups

The guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses includes a brief section on shift patterns and working groups, highlighting the importance of organising work in such a way as to reduce the number of contacts each employee has. It recommends fixing teams or shift groups as far as possible to ensure that any unavoidable contact happens between the same people. It suggests finding ways to remove direct contact where employees have to pass things to each other, e.g. by using drop-off points or transfer zones. The guidance also advises employers to assist the NHS test and trace programme by keeping temporary records of staff shift patterns for 21 days so that this data can be shared with NHS test and trace if necessary to help contain clusters or outbreaks. For details of how to collect the relevant data, it links out to another piece of Government guidance on collecting data from staff and visitors. That guidance is primarily directed at businesses in the hospitality, tourism and close contact services sectors, that have large numbers of customers visiting their premises, and are legally required to collect customers’ details, but manufacturing employers may find it helpful to refer to when putting in place systems to record staff details.

Note that earlier, more general employer guidance flagged that structuring working hours into staggered shifts would help to enable employees to maintain social distancing and reduce the need for employees to use public transport during peak hours (see question 3, below, for more information on travel to work). It also suggested practical measures such as splitting staff into teams with alternate days working from home, or splitting across a day and night shift and spreading out standard processes, so that only one team needs to be on the premises to complete a task at a given time. That guidance is no longer available online but the suggestions it made may still be helpful. 

Avoiding raised voices

The section of the guidance on managing risk includes a paragraph flagging that employers should ensure that steps are taken to avoid people needing to unduly raise their voices to each other in the workplace. This includes, but is not limited to, refraining from playing music or broadcasts that may encourage shouting, including if played at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult. This is because of the potential for increased risk of transmission, particularly from aerosol transmission. 

Outbreaks in the workplace

The guidance notes that, as part of your risk assessment, you should have a plan in place in case there is a Covid-19 outbreak in your workplace. Where possible, the plan should nominate a single point of contact who can take the lead on contacting local Public Health England teams. 

If there is more than one case of Covid-19 associated with your workplace, you should contact your local PHE health protection team to report the suspected outbreak. 

If the local PHE team declares an outbreak, you will be asked to record details of symptomatic staff and assist with identifying contacts. It is therefore important you ensure that all employee records are up to date – that includes contact details but also information on employees’ shift patterns, so that you can identify who may have been in the workplace at the same time as anyone who has tested positive (see ‘Shift patterns and working groups’, above). The PHE team will provide you with information about outbreak management, to help you implement control measures, communicate with staff and reinforce prevention messages. (See also question 4, below).

Work-related travel 

The guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses specifies that unnecessary work travel should be avoided. Where work travel is necessary, employers should take steps to keep employees safe. The guidance reminds employers that employees should aim to walk or cycle where possible, but that they can use public transport or drive if walking or cycling is not possible.

You should minimise the number of people who aren’t in the same household/support bubble travelling together in a single vehicle, increase ventilation where possible and avoid them sitting face to face. You should also ensure that any shared vehicles are cleaned between shifts or on handover. 

If employees travel together, travel partners should be fixed to minimise the number of contacts. This also applies where employees are delivering material or products to other sites and a two-person delivery is required. 

Any overnight accommodation used by employees travelling for work must meet social distancing guidelines and employers should centrally log details of the stay. 

You should also put in place processes to minimise contact during payments and exchange of documentation for deliveries, e.g. by using electronic payment and document exchange methods. 

Communications and training 

It is imperative that all employees understand your Covid-19-related safety procedures. Accordingly, where employees are returning to work after time away, e.g. while your business was closed, or if they were off sick, you will need to develop communication and training materials for them to engage with before their return. 
 
You should engage with employees and their representatives through existing communication routes to explain and agree changes to working arrangements. (Note, although the guidance suggests agreeing any changes, depending on the nature of the change and your contractual arrangements with employees, you may be able to explain and implement changes without formal agreement). You should also provide clear, consistent and regular communications to improve understanding and consistency of ways of working and engage on an ongoing basis to monitor and understand any unforeseen impacts of changed working practices. 
 
The guidance highlights the need to ensure your messaging is simple and clear, with consideration of groups who do not have English as their first language. 
You should minimise face-to-face communication, using alternatives such as signage, to explain any changes to production schedules, breakdowns, etc. 
Consider communicating your procedures to suppliers, customers and trade bodies to help their adoption and share your experiences. 
 
Note that the guidance also flags the importance of mental health at times of uncertainty, indicating that this is an area employers will need to be aware of and focus on and signposting to additional guidance on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of Covid-19

Inbound and outbound goods 

The guidance notes the importance of maintaining social distancing and avoiding surface transmission when goods enter and leave your site, especially in high volume situations, such as distribution centres and despatch areas. Among other things, it suggests that you revise pick-up and drop-off points, use non-contact delivery where possible, reduce the frequency of deliveries (e.g. by ordering larger quantities less often) and have single employees load and unload vehicles where possible (or use fixed pairings where two people are needed). 

Keeping up to date 

It is important to regularly check the Government guidance on applicable safety measures, as this may well change as understanding of the virus increases, or as we move further along in the Government’s plans to gradually ease lockdown measures. The Government has indicated that employers can check for updates here. In addition, given the potential for the guidance to change over time, if you make a decision based on the guidance available on a particular date, we would recommend that you download and keep a copy of that guidance so that you have access to it if you need it in the future, e.g. if an employee questions why a particular safety measure is required, or why you have not taken a particular step. 

3. What is the advice on ensuring that employees can travel to work safely? (Last updated 03/08/2020)

As noted above, businesses that are able to continue to operate safely can remain open – and can require employees to attend the workplace if it is Covid-secure. 

An employer would not normally be expected to include an employee’s commute to work in its health and safety risk assessment, other than for a mobile worker. However, in these unprecedented times, this is something that employers should consider because the mode of transport an employee uses to get to work may impact on their health while they are at work and thus potentially increase the risk of transmission of the virus in your workplace.

In this regard, it is worth noting that the guidance on travel  recommends that employees should travel to work on foot, or by bicycle if they can, but it makes clear that public transport can be used. The use of face coverings is mandatory on public transport and in the enclosed areas of public transport hubs (i.e. airports, rail and tram stations, coach and bus stations, maritime ports and terminals) unless an exception applies. The guidance suggests safety precautions that individuals can take when using public transport, such as maintaining social distancing, washing or sanitising their hands regularly and avoiding peak travel. 

Accordingly, if your employees have to travel to work by public transport, you should consider staggering working hours to enable them to commute outside of peak times, thus reducing the number of people they will come into contact with on their way to work. 
 
You should also take account of the guidance on the use of cars and other private vehicles, as this may impact on employees who usually share lifts with each other. This guidance provides that when using a private vehicle, cars should ideally only be shared by members of the same household or support bubble. Those who need to share a car with people who are not members of their own household or support bubble, e.g. to get to work, are advised to take safety precautions such as sharing with the same individuals each time and with the minimum number of people at any one time. You should bear this in mind when planning shift rotas, ensuring where possible that employees who share lifts can continue to travel with the same people (also see question 2, above, re limiting social interaction between staff by maintaining consistent shift teams). 
 
The guidance also notes that where vehicles are used by people from multiple households, wearing a face covering may help to protect others, while good ventilation (i.e. keeping the windows open) and facing away from each other may help to reduce the risk of transmission. It also indicates that vehicles should be cleaned regularly using gloves and standard cleaning products with particular emphasis on handles and other areas where passengers may touch surfaces. 

4. What if someone with Covid-19 comes to work? Do we need to close the workplace? And do we need to tell our staff about the incident? (Last updated 07/07/2020)

If someone with Covid-19 comes to work, you do not necessarily need to close your workplace. You should in these circumstances implement the plan you put in place as part of your risk assessment (see question 2, above, under the heading ‘Outbreaks in the workplace’) and follow the Government guidance on cleaning and decontaminating your workplace
 
As for whether you should tell your staff, you have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of your employees and a duty of care towards them, so you should keep your workforce informed about cases of Covid-19. 
 
However, the Information Commissioner's Office states that employers probably don’t need to name individuals and shouldn’t provide more information than necessary. So you can say that there are “cases of Covid-19 within the workplace”, but be cautious about giving further details. 
 
Be aware that if someone who has been at work and has spent time in close proximity with colleagues subsequently tests positive for Covid-19, those colleagues may be contacted and advised to self-isolate under the NHS test and trace programme.
 
Note that when someone first develops symptoms and orders a test, they will be encouraged by staff operating the NHS test and trace programme to alert the people that they have had close contact with in the 48 hours before symptom onset. If any of those close contacts are co-workers, the person who has developed symptoms may wish to (but is not obliged to) ask their employer to alert those co-workers. At this stage, those close contacts should not self-isolate, but they:
  • must avoid individuals who are at high-risk of contracting Covid-19, for example, because they have pre-existing medical conditions, such as respiratory issues;
  • must take extra care in practising social distancing and good hygiene and in watching out for symptoms; and
  • will be better prepared if the person who has symptoms has a positive test result and if they (the contact) receive a notification from the NHS test and trace service explaining they need to self-isolate.

When someone is advised under the NHS test and trace programme that they must self-isolate because they have been in contact with a person who has tested positive for coronavirus, they will be entitled to SSP (and company sick pay if applicable) during their self-isolation – see the FAQs on ‘Employees unable or unwilling to attend work’ for more details.
 
The guidance for employers on the NHS test and trace programme and the guidance on working safely on factories, plants and warehouses specify that if there is more than one case of Covid-19 associated with a workplace, you should contact your local health protection team to report the suspected outbreak. The heath protection team will:

  • undertake a risk assessment;
  • provide public health advice; and
  • where necessary, establish a multi-agency incident management team to manage the outbreak.

5. Can we require employees to be tested for Covid-19 as part of our workplace safety measures? (Last updated 14/09/2020)

In order to avoid exposing their workforce to Covid-19, employers may wish to require employees to undergo tests on a periodic basis to check they do not have the virus. 

Anyone with symptoms of Covid-19 can apply to get tested and employers can refer employees for priority testing if they are on the essential workers list (which includes, for example, critical personnel in the production and distribution of food, drink and essential goods) and are having to self-isolate because they or someone in their household/support bubble have symptoms. Government guidance provides further details on access to testing, who counts as an essential worker, etc.

However, in order to avoid exposing their workforce to Covid-19, employers may wish to require employees to undergo tests on a periodic basis to check they do not have the virus, even if they are asymptomatic.

As tests for Covid-19 are now being more widely developed, private healthcare companies are offering testing services to employers. The Government has produced guidance highlighting the issues employers must consider when seeking to implement such testing. That guidance notes that employers must always comply with their employment law and data protection obligations.

Ordinarily, from an employment law perspective, an employer would only be able to require an employee to undergo any form of medical test if there is an express provision within the employee's contract (or sickness absence policy) providing for this. 

However, in the unprecedented circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, requesting that all staff undergo testing on a periodic basis may potentially be deemed reasonable to help the employer to protect the health and safety of all employees, even if such testing is not provided for in contractual documentation. In practice, employees may be reassured that the employer is taking such steps to protect their health in the workplace and many are likely to accept that such testing may be a necessary precaution in current circumstances. 

That said, it is important to bear in mind that testing employees for Covid-19 on a periodic basis cannot be viewed as a substitute for other necessary health and safety measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 in your workplace – see question 2, above, for details.

In the event that an employee refuses to be tested, we would recommend the employer to have a constructive discussion with the employee, explaining why testing is considered necessary and seeking to understand the employee’s reasons for refusal. There may potentially be grounds for disciplinary action in such a case, but we would recommend that employers seek advice before acting. 

From a data protection perspective, the result of a Covid-19 test would constitute special category data as it is data concerning health. Employers wishing to require employees to undergo Covid-19 testing at the workplace should take into account the data protection considerations identified in the FAQs on ‘Data protection during the pandemic’, regarding who has access to the data, conducting a data protection impact assessment, updating data protection policy documents and providing appropriate privacy notice information. 

Note that towards the start of the pandemic, when Covid-19 tests were not widely available, some employers opted to carry out temperature testing on employees before allowing them into work.  However, temperature testing is not fool-proof, as an employee may have taken paracetamol before coming to work, which could have lowered their temperature.  The Government guidance therefore focuses instead on “Covid-19 testing”. With regard to temperature testing, it states that “As the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has set out, there is little scientific evidence to support temperature screening as a reliable method for detection of COVID-19.” That said, some employers might still wish to conduct temperature testing on entry to the workplace as a precautionary measure, so that they can send any employee with a high temperature home to self-isolate.  Employers who do choose to do this should note that the contractual, employee relations, health and safety and data protection considerations would be similar to those described above in relation to Covid-19 testing.

5(a). Can we establish our own internal contact tracing system? (Last updated 14/09/2020)

Employers that implement a workplace Covid-19 testing programme (see question 5, above) may also want to introduce their own internal contact tracing system. The Government guidance for employers on workplace testing acknowledges this as a possibility, but notes that employer-led internal tracing systems can never be a substitute for NHS Test and Trace and that an employer that identifies more than one case of Covid-19 on its premises must always report the suspected outbreak to the appropriate authority (see question 2, above, under the heading ‘Outbreaks in the workplace’). 

When developing a workplace contact tracing system, it is important to bear in mind employees’ entitlements to pay in the event that they are required to self-isolate away from the workplace. As flagged in the Government guidance for employers on workplace testing, an individual who has been identified as a contact by an internal contact tracing system but is not defined as a contact by the NHS Test and Trace service does not qualify for SSP. If you decide to require the employee to remain away from the workplace, you should enable them to work from home where possible. If working from home is not possible, you may have to keep them on full pay, unless their contract of employment provides otherwise (since an employee who is not symptomatic and has not been told to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace service would be considered ready and willing to work – and therefore entitled to pay if prevented from working by their employer). If an individual whom you have identified as a contact under an internal contact tracing system is contacted by NHS Test and Trace as well, they will become eligible for SSP (if they meet the other eligibility criteria) from the day that NHS Test and Trace tells them to self-isolate.

The Government guidance for employers on workplace testing also emphasises that if you decide to require asymptomatic employees to stay away from the workplace because you have identified them as contacts under an internal contact tracing system, you should ensure that they are given the correct public health advice. This includes advising them to request a test if they become symptomatic. Until they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace, they do not have to self-isolate. Instead, they should:

  • avoid contact with people at high increased risk of severe illness from Coronavirus, such as people with pre-existing medical conditions;
  • take extra care in practising social distancing and good hygiene; and
  • watch out for symptoms and self-isolate if they also show signs of Coronavirus.

Employers should not attempt to trace any contacts beyond the workplace, but should refer these cases to the local Health Protection Team.

An internal contact tracing system will involve asking employees who have tested positive for details of any colleagues with whom they have had recent close contact. Questions should be carefully designed to ensure that the employer does not gather more information than necessary and employers will need to be mindful of data protection considerations – see the FAQs on ‘Data protection during the pandemic’.

6. What should we do if we have an employee who has symptoms (new continuous cough, high temperature, or change to / loss of their sense of smell or taste), but is refusing to self-isolate and insists they are fit for work? (Last updated 17/09/2020)

Any employee whose role is such that they can work effectively from home should do so provided they are well enough and should be paid their normal pay during this time. 
 
In view of the employer’s duty to protect the health and safety of all staff, if an employee who is unable to work from home presented at work displaying symptoms that could potentially indicate they had Covid-19, the employer should send the employee home to self-isolate. Indeed, employers will wish to avoid having symptomatic employees in the workplace and, as noted at question 2, above, the “Priority actions to take” section of the working safely guidance specifies that employers should turn away anyone with Covid-19 symptoms. 
 
If an employee who has been at work and spent time in close proximity with colleagues subsequently tests positive for Covid-19, those colleagues may be contacted and advised to self-isolate under the NHS test and trace programme, in which case they will be entitled to SSP (and company sick pay if applicable) during their self-isolation – see the FAQs on ‘Employees unable or unwilling to attend work’.
 
If it is not feasible for the symptomatic employee to work from home, in view of the regulations providing for individuals who self-isolate with symptoms of Covid-19 to be deemed incapable of work (see the FAQs on ‘Employees unable or unwilling to attend work’), we consider that the employer could treat the employee as being on sick leave. 
 
Accordingly, the employer would pay the employee SSP (or company sick pay, if applicable). 

7. Can our staff canteen still operate? (Last updated 06/07/2020)

With regard to staff canteens, the guidance specifies that they may remain open to provide food for staff and suggests various measures to reduce risk, such as:

  • making hand washing facilities or hand sanitiser available at the entrance to canteens and supervising its use;
  • staggering break times to ensure no overcrowding, so that staff can adhere to social distancing rules;
  • marking queue points clearly on the floor to ensure social distancing is possible;
  • not permitting any sharing of food and drink by staff who do not share a household;
  • as far as possible, providing individually wrapped food to avoid any contamination; 
  • increasing the frequency of cleaning, especially hand touch surfaces, such as table tops, drinks levers, keypads, grab-rails, elevator buttons, light switches, door handles, plates or cutlery, and any surface or item which is designed to be, or has a high likelihood of being touched;
  • cleaning canteen spaces thoroughly after each group of staff use them;
  • keeping doors and windows open wherever possible to allow greater ventilation and prevent touching of window handles (subject to appropriate fly screening);
  • considering implementation of a system to reduce the use of cash for food or to facilitate the exclusive use of debit cards; and
  • where possible, matching cohorts of workers to zoned canteen areas.

As noted at question 2, above, further recommendations on maintaining social distancing at break times are included in the guidance on working safely in factories, plants and warehouses. 

8. What if an employee ignores Covid-19-related hygiene rules? (Last updated 28/07/2020)

If an employer has instructed its employees to follow certain rules to contain the virus and ensure safety in the workplace and an employee fails to comply with those instructions, the employer will be entitled to take disciplinary action.

It is worth noting that employees have a duty under health and safety law to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their acts or omissions at work, as well as to cooperate with their employer on health and safety matters. It is strictly a criminal offence for employees to breach these duties. Almost any instruction for an employee to take certain measures which are aimed at helping the employer comply with its health and safety duties to employees and third parties will count as a reasonable management instruction for disciplinary purposes.

That said, if an employer is proposing to discipline an employee for refusal to comply with such an instruction, the employer should still follow a fair process and take account of the employee’s individual circumstances, ensuring that any such action is proportionate. In particular, if an employee has a disability that means it is more difficult for them to follow a particular rule, before deciding to impose a disciplinary sanction, the employer may need to consider whether there are any reasonable adjustments it should make to the rule to enable the disabled employee to comply. By way of example, an employee with a respiratory condition such as asthma may struggle to comply with a rule that employees wear face coverings in common areas of the workplace. The Government guidance applicable in England specifies that wearing a face covering is mandatory for passengers on public transport and in various indoor settings, unless an exception applies, e.g. if an individual is unable to do so because of a physical or mental illness, impairment, or disability, or if wearing one would cause the individual severe distress. However, although wearing a face covering is encouraged in other enclosed public spaces where individuals may encounter people they do not usually meet, it is not legally required. Disciplining an employee who has a medical condition that makes it difficult for them to comply with a rule that employees wear face coverings in common areas of the workplace may therefore be risky and we suggest that you take advice on your particular circumstances.