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Working safely during Coronavirus – guidance updated

On 22 September, the Prime Minister announced that the Government is once again asking office workers to work from home if they can.  On 12 October, a new three-tiered system of local COVID alert levels was introduced.  Guidance has now been published on the restrictions in place in each of the three tiers, which includes a section on going to work.

What does the guidance say about going to work?

New guidance on the local alert levels in England confirms that employees should “work from home where you can effectively do so”. 

The general guidance links to separate guidance notes for each local alert level: medium, high and very high.  In each note, the guidance states:

  • anyone who cannot work from home should go to their place of work;
  • the risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk;
  • those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable can go to work as long as the workplace is COVID secure, but should carry on working from home wherever possible.

For details of the updated guidance for those who were previously advised to shield, see our separate post here.

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 starts with 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 customers or visitors to wear face coverings where required to do so by law.
  4. Make sure everyone is social distancing.
  5. Increase 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.

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.

The rule of six.  From 14 September, no-one should socialise in a group of greater than six.  However, these rules do not apply to workplaces.

Who should go to work.  Employers should consult with employees to determine who can come into the workplace safely, taking account of a person’s journey, caring responsibilities, protected characteristics and other individual circumstances.  Extra consideration should be given to those at higher risk.  Employers should take care not to discriminate against any employees because of a protected characteristic such as age, sex, disability, race or ethnicity.

Social distancing.  This must be maintained in the workplace.  Where the 2m distance is not viable, a 1m with 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.

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, employers should keep up to date with changes to legislation that require employees to wear face coverings.

NHS Test and Trace.  Employers must keep records of staff working patterns for a period of 21 days.  Employers whose customers attend their premises, such as restaurants, hair salons, sports clubs and heritage locations must now ask at least one member of each customer party visiting the site to provide contact details.

What does the guidance say about employees who are worried about going in to work?

Guidance for employees on “how to return to work safely if you cannot work from home” includes a section for employees who are worried about going to work.  This suggests that employees read guidance from Citizens Advice, check if they can make flexible work arrangements and talk to employers about whether they need any reasonable adjustments if they have a disability.  It also reminds employees that they can report employers who are not taking all practicable steps to promote social distancing to the local authority or the Health and Safety Executive.

We highlight some of the issues surrounding employees who do not want to return to work due to fear of catching COVID-19 in our separate post 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. 

20 October 2020

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