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The current hot topic

Ending lockdown

On 10 May the UK government began to set out its roadmap out of the COVID-19 lockdown for businesses, schools and society at large. After consultation with business groups, major employers and trade unions, the government released guidance around five key points.

The government warned that the UK still faces significant challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It stated that this is ‘not a short-term crisis’, and that there is no quick or easy solution. The plan as outlined in the new guidance document ‘depends on continued widespread compliance’ from the public.

However, the government’s new message of ‘Stay Alert’ has been criticised as confusing, while the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are yet to ease restrictions.

Stay at home if possible

The new guidance covers eight workplace settings which are allowed to be open, from outdoor environments and construction sites to factories and takeaways.

However, the first of the five practical steps for businesses emphasises that people should continue to work from home, if possible. Additionally, employers must take all reasonable steps to help people work from home. The central issue for all businesses will be how to accommodate the government's safe social-distancing measure of two metres between colleagues in closed workplaces, and for customers in public-facing businesses like retail.

Consequently, many large companies are expecting their offices to operate at reduced capacity until the middle of next year.

Risk assessments

For those businesses that have not been told to close, and where it is impractical for employees to work remotely, a COVID-19 risk assessment must be carried out.

If possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website and all businesses with over 50 employees are expected to do this.

Social distancing

In order to maintain two metres of social distancing, the government is asking employers to redesign workspaces. To achieve this goal the government suggests staggering start times, creating one-way walkthroughs, opening more entrances and exits, or changing seating layouts in break rooms. Where people cannot be two metres apart, employers must manage the risk of transmission.

Employers should investigate putting barriers in shared spaces, creating workplace shift patterns, minimising the number of people in contact with one another, or ensuring colleagues are facing away from each other.

Keeping clean

In addition, the government says workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.

A downloadable notice is available, which employers should display in their workplaces to show their employees, customers and other visitors to their workplace that they have followed the guidance.

Early days

The early days of the exit plan were further complicated by overcrowding on some public transport and question marks over the reopening of schools. Both needed to resume operating in some form to facilitate the return to work.

The end of lockdown was always likely to prove problematic as the government continues to juggle economic recovery and public health. The roadmap remains unclear for the medium and long-term, while setbacks remain a possibility if supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) run thin or a second peak threatens to overwhelm the health service.

The full government guidance can be read here.

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