On 11 May 2020 the Government published "Our Plan to Rebuild: the UK Government's COVID-19 Recovery Strategy" (the Recovery Strategy). The Recovery Strategy sets out the Government's roadmap for a phased exit from the lockdown restrictions in England. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will make their own assessments about lifting lockdown measures. Of particular importance to employers is the timetable for getting certain workers back to work and the health and safety measures that must be adopted.

What is the Recovery Strategy?

The key theme of the Recovery Strategy is that there will be no quick return to normality and working life will be different for the foreseeable future. The Government's overriding priority is to save lives and, therefore, safety measures remain paramount.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the reproduction number of the virus (the R number) was between 2.7 and 3, meaning each infected person passed the virus to nearly three other people on average. Phase one of the strategy for dealing with the virus was to introduce stringent lockdown measures to help reduce the R number and alleviate pressure on the NHS. The lockdown measures have caused the R number to drop between 0.5 and 0.9, meaning the number of infected people is falling and the restrictions can now be adjusted.

However, modelling suggests that relaxing all lockdown measures would lead to a resurgence of the virus and a second wave of infection that could be larger than the first. Therefore, phase two of the strategy sets out a road map for the gradual easing of some elements of the lockdown restrictions. The restrictions are to be replaced by "smarter controls", reflecting the level of risk at a given point in time. These smarter controls will be developed and announced over the coming weeks and months and may be rolled out in different regions of England at different times depending on the levels of infection. Importantly, if the R number tips above 1 then stringent lockdown measures will be reimposed, possibly at short notice.

Phase three of the strategy will be to lift the restrictions altogether. However, it is said this will only be possible when the Government has developed, trialled, manufactured and distributed reliable treatments or vaccines. No time frame is given, save that it is said that a vaccine "may not be developed for a long time (or even ever)" and that effective treatments may be found either "imminently" or "not for a long time". Until then, we will remain in phase two.

What does phase two mean for employers?

Phase two is based around a staged easing of restrictions, with dates assigned to each stage. However, if the R number increases, it's likely that the lifting of some or all of the restrictions will be delayed. Bearing this in mind, what does the roadmap to lifting the restrictions have in store for employers?

Step 1 - some workers may return to work from 13 May 2020

Workers who cannot work from home are told to return to work if their workplace is open. The current list of businesses and venues that must remain closed to the public is set out here and includes all non-essential retail shops and hospitality businesses. Where workers are returning to work, they are told to avoid public transport where possible and use face coverings in enclosed public spaces (such as shops or public transport where this has to be used).

Employers should take reasonably practicable steps to support alternative ways of commuting, for example, by joining the Government's Cycle to Work scheme, providing bike storage and changing facilities and/or providing more car parking spaces. Where the use of public transport is unavoidable, employers should consider introducing staggered start and finish times to allow the worst of the rush hour to be avoided. Employers could also provide staff with face coverings, although these do not need to be medical-grade face masks. More broadly, employers will need to comply with the "COVID19 Secure Guidelines" which apply to their particular workplace. These are discussed further below.

However, the following workers should not (or may be unable to) return to work:

  • Those who can work from home: these workers are told to continue to work from home "for the foreseeable future".
  • Self-isolators: it remains the case that anyone with symptoms (or who is in household with someone who has symptoms) should self-isolate and not attend work until the relevant selfisolation period is over. As testing capacity increases, it should be possible to confirm more quickly whether someone is infected. Where a worker has already returned to work and needs to self-isolate, they should be treated as on sick leave for the period of self-isolation.
  • Clinically vulnerable: those in clinically vulnerable groups (i.e. those aged 70+, are pregnant or who have certain chronic pre-existing conditions) are told to continue to take particular care to minimise contact outside their homes, although they do not need to shield. Where a clinically vulnerable person is unable to work from home (in their role or an alternative role) then they should be offered the safest available role in the workplace which allows them to socially distance. Alternatively, they could be furloughed (and the furlough scheme has recently been extended until 31 October 2020).
  • Shielders: those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are told to continue to shield and stay at home at all times until at least the end of June 2020. Where a clinically extremely vulnerable person is unable to work from home (in their role or an alternative role), then they can either be treated as on sick leave or furloughed.
  • Parents: in theory, parents are able to return to work from 13 May 2020 if they are unable to work from home and are not otherwise in an excluded category. However, at this stage, nurseries and schools will remain closed to the majority of children (although nannies and childminders may resume childcare services). This means that many parents will not be in a position to return to work. Employers should seek legal advice on their particular situation; however, options include agreeing periods of annual leave, parental leave or dependant emergency leave or placing the worker on furlough.
  • International workers arriving into the UK:although international business travel will be rare at present, it should be noted that almost all persons arriving into the UK from overseas will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days (and if they cannot demonstrate where they will be self-isolating they will be quarantined). This restriction is not coming into force on 13 May 2020 but will follow shortly.

In addition, employers should be aware that at the end of May 2020 the Government will publish a review into factors affecting outcomes from COVID-19, including ethnicity, gender and obesity. This may mean that employers will be required to take special action to protect those groups, including allowing them to work from home or putting in place additional protective measures.

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Originally published Brahams Dutt, May 2020

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.