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Working safely during Coronavirus – guidance updated

Current government guidance is that individuals should continue to work from home where they can. This advice is likely to remain in place until June 2021, according to the Spring 2021 roadmap published by the government on 22 February.

Separate guidance is currently in place for those individuals who are clinically extremely vulnerable.  Those individuals are advised not to attend work if they cannot work from home.  This shielding guidance is in place until 31 March 2021. 

Our separate post on working and shielding can be found here.

Where businesses are open and their employees cannot work from home, employers should take steps to ensure that their workplaces are Covid secure.  Covid Secure guidelines have been published and are being regularly updated. 

What do the COVID-secure guidelines say?

Where employees attend work, employers should be aware of and follow the COVID-secure guidelines.

The COVID-secure guidelines were originally published on 11 May 2020 and included “Five steps to working safely”.  The five steps have since been removed, but the sector specific guidance (which applies to businesses in England) has been updated.   Each guidance document now includes a list of “priority actions” and further key points to be aware of.  The priority actions include:

  1. Complete a COVID-19 risk assessment.  Share it with all staff.
  2. Clean more often.  Ask staff and customers to use hand sanitiser and wash hands more often.
  3. Ask visitors and staff to wear face coverings where required to do so by law.
  4. Make sure everyone is social distancing.
  5. Consider ventilation.
  6. Take part in NHS Test and Trace by keeping a record of all staff, contractors and visitors for 21 days.  This is a legal requirement from 18 September.
  7. Turn people (including employees) with coronavirus symptoms away.  By law from 28 September employers must not require someone who is being required to self-isolate to come to work.
  8. Consider the mental health and wellbeing aspects of COVID-19 for yourself and others. 

The sector specific COVID-secure guidance includes practical information on a variety of issues, including:

Risk assessments.  To decide which actions to take, employers must carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment.  This must be done in consultation with unions or workers.  The guidance states that employers must share the results of the risk assessment with the workforce and that employers should consider publishing the results on their website.

Managing the risk.  Employers have a duty to reduce workplace risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures.  This includes ensuring employees who feel unwell stay at home; increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning; complying with 2m or 1m plus social distancing guidelines; taking steps to avoid people needing to raise their voices; considering whether activities can safely go ahead; optimising ventilation.

Who should go to work.  The current guidance is that employees who can work from home should do so.  Employers should consult with employees to determine who needs to come into the workplace.  Where employers consider that workers should come in to their place of work, this will need to be reflected in the risk assessment and actions taken to manage the risk of transmission in line with the guidance.   Extra consideration should be given to those at higher risk.  Clinically extremely vulnerable employees who cannot work from home should currently not attend work.  Employers should take care not to discriminate against any employees because of a protected characteristic such as age, sex, disability, race or ethnicity.  Employees who need to self-isolate should not be required to attend work.

Social distancing.  This must be maintained in the workplace.  Where the 2m distance is not viable, a 1m with risk mitigation should be used.  Mitigation might include keeping activity time short; using screens or barriers; using back to back or side to side working; reducing the number of people employees have contact with (e.g. with fixed teams or partnering).  Employers should also consider staggering arrival and departure times; providing facilities such as bike racks; having more entry points to reduce congestion; using one-way systems; avoiding in-person meetings; staggering break times.  Social distancing applies to all parts of a business including entrances and exits, break rooms, canteens and similar settings.

Face coverings.  The guidance states that people are encouraged to wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces where there are people they do not normally meet.  However, there are exemptions and employers should keep up to date with changes to legislation that require employees to wear face coverings. There is guidance on what to tell employees about how to safely use face coverings.

NHS Test and Trace.  Employers must keep records of staff working patterns for a period of 21 days.  Details of the information that employers need to collect and how it should be managed is set out in separate guidance here.

Tests and vaccinations.  Employers must continue to follow the working safely measures even if employees have received a recent negative test result or had the vaccine (either one or two doses).  Businesses that employment more than 50 people and whose employees cannot work from home can order free rapid lateral flow tests, to test employees with no coronavirus symptoms.  According to the Spring 2021 roadmap, these will be provided free until the end of June, but organisations must register their interest before 31 March 2021.  Our separate post on workplace testing is here and our separate post on vaccinations is here.


It is important for employers to remember, as noted in the COVID-secure guidance, that it “does not supersede any legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities, and it is important that as a business or an employer you continue to comply with your existing obligations including those relating to individuals with protected characteristics. It contains non-statutory guidance to take into account when complying with these existing obligations.”

Employers must do all that they reasonably can to conduct a risk assessment of the workplace in light of the risks involved with coronavirus; set up a safe system of work in accordance with that risk assessment; and make sure that the system is implemented and followed. Communication with employees about steps that have been taken to ensure that the workplace is safe is key. 

Originally posted 20 October 2020. Updated 26 February 2021.

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