On 12 July 2021, the Government confirmed that Covid-19 restrictions in England will be lifted from 19 July as we move into Step 4 of the roadmap. We summarise key points for employers.
The Government’s Covid-19 Response: Summer 2021 document has been updated to reflect the announcement on the lifting of restrictions. However, it flags that the pandemic is far from over and urges the need for continued caution as we proceed to step 4. (Note, the devolved administrations have their own powers in relation to Covid-19 restrictions, so the lifting of restrictions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may take place at different rates.)
Removal of instruction to work from home – but return to workplaces expected to be gradual
Perhaps the most significant part of the announcement for employers is the confirmation that the general instruction that all employees should work from home if possible is to be lifted from 19 July. Employers can therefore start planning a return to the workplace for staff who have been working from home during the pandemic, if they wish to do so.
That said, in his speech at the 12 July press conference, the Prime Minister stated that the Government does not expect the whole country to return to their desks “as one” from Monday. Rather, the Government will be providing guidance for businesses for a gradual return to work over the summer.
Social distancing and face covering requirements to be lifted – but sensible precautions encouraged
Current rules that require social distancing (2m, or 1m with additional mitigation measures) will be lifted in the vast majority of settings, although they will remain in limited circumstances such as at ports of entry (to manage the risk of variants of concern being transmitted) and as necessary for infection prevention and control in health and care settings. The Government will also provide guidance on how businesses can reduce unnecessary contact in the workplace, where this is practical.
The legal requirement to wear a face covering will be lifted for all settings where it currently applies. However, the Government will publish guidance highlighting that face coverings do help to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission and advising people to wear them where they come into contact with people they don’t normally meet in enclosed and crowded spaces.
Similarly, regulations that place Covid-secure requirements on businesses will be lifted. The Government intends to publish updated ‘working safely’ guidance encouraging employers to take sensible precautions to reduce risk in their workplaces and providing examples of possible measures. Employers are advised to take account of this guidance when conducting the risk assessments they are obliged to carry out under general health and safety laws.
This approach marks a clear shift away from Government-imposed rules and restrictions towards individual and business choice and responsibility. Employers could choose to maintain their current workplace safety measures, including any social distancing and the wearing of face coverings, or adjust their approach if their risk assessment concludes that this is appropriate.
Relaxation of travel quarantine rules for the fully vaccinated – but red list remains
As had been widely trailed in the media, the requirement to quarantine for 10 days on return from countries on the Government’s amber list will be removed from 19 July for individuals who are fully vaccinated. The requirements for fully vaccinated individuals returning from amber list countries will be the same as those applicable for people returning from green list countries (i.e. negative result in test taken within the 3 days before travel to England and post-travel test taken on or before day 2 following return to England, with self-isolation if that test result is positive).
This relaxation of the rules is expected to enable more people to travel abroad over the summer holiday season and reduce operational difficulties for employers as fewer employees will need to quarantine on return from their holidays – although employers will need to bear in mind that not everyone will yet be fully vaccinated. It remains an offence for an employer to require an individual who is subject to quarantine to attend any place for the purposes of their work other than the place where they are quarantining.
In addition, the red list of countries considered to present the highest Covid-19 risk remains in place and people returning from those countries will still be required to quarantine for 10 days in a managed quarantine hotel. It is important to note that countries can be moved between lists, potentially at short notice, if the Government considers that their Covid-19 risk level has changed.
Removal of self-isolation requirement for fully vaccinated close contacts – but not until later in the summer
One thing that will remain in place is the NHS Test and Trace programme (referred to in the Covid-19 Response: Summer 2021 document as the ‘Test, Trace and Isolate system’). The Government will continue to make Covid-19 tests available for individuals who have Covid-19 symptoms and the regular use of rapid tests for those without symptoms will continue to be encouraged. The Covid-19 Response: Summer 2021 document comments that people may wish to use such tests to help manage periods of risk such as returning to the workplace. (Employers who registered for the Government’s workplace testing scheme can continue to order Government funded LFD tests until 19 July.)
Self-isolation following a positive test result, or as a close contact instructed by NHS Test and Trace, will remain a legal requirement. That said, the Government has confirmed that it intends to remove the requirement to self-isolate as a close contact for individuals who are fully vaccinated or under 18. If and when this change is introduced, it is expected to reduce the staffing difficulties that many employers may be facing as a result of higher Covid-19 case numbers and the consequent increase in employees having to self-isolate. However, the Covid-19 Response: Summer 2021 document states that this change is not due to come into effect until later in the summer and that the Government will publish further details in due course.
How we can help
We will be updating our Coronavirus FAQs to reflect the lifting of restrictions following publication of the new Government guidance for businesses.
Make UK members who need advice in relation to Covid-19 measures and their employment implications should contact their regular adviser. We can provide advice and assistance to non-members on a consultancy basis – if you would like further information on our services, please call us on 0808 168 5874, or email [email protected].