Public Health England (PHE) has recently issued workplace action cards to certain business sectors setting out various key steps to quickly identify and contain any potential COVID-19 outbreak, to include contacting the local PHE Health Protection Team for help and advice. If not managed properly, an intervention by PHE could also potentially lead to the involvement of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or local authority and, in a worst case scenario, morph into a formal criminal investigation.
With businesses' COVID-19 policies and arrangements coming under scrutiny from all quarters as never before, the legal, commercial and PR risks for any business are significant.
In this update, we consider the latest PHE action cards, which business sectors it applies to, and how we can help protect your position.
Identify, report, respond
The action cards have been developed to cover a range of businesses and organisations.
The cards only apply to England and additional settings will be added in due course.
These quick-reference guides provide key steps to help businesses to:
- Identify an outbreak of COVID-19 (one or more confirmed case, or more than one confirmed case, depending on the business or organisation)
- Report the outbreak to the local PHE Health Protection Team. The guidance states that "early engagement with your local PHE HPT is key to minimise any possible wider outbreak in your community"
- Work with the local Health Protection Team to respond
The workplace action cards specifically cover1:
- Construction and outdoor work
- Manufacturing of food and other large processing plants
- Restaurants, pubs, bars, cafes or takeaways
- Shops and branches
- Dress fitters, tailors and fashion designers
- Hairdressing, barbershops, beauty and nail bars, makeup, and tattoo and spray tanning studios
- Spas, sports and massage therapy, wellbeing and holistic centres
In the event of an outbreak, the local PHE Health Protection Team may request further information, including whether other regulators (such as the HSE or local authority) have been in contact.
They may also request certain actions to be put in place, such as:
- Enhanced hygiene, hand washing and cleaning regimes, and use of personal protective equipment
- Enhanced testing and tracing
- Increased staff awareness of and adherence to preventative measures
- Additional measures to limit access or temporary closure of the site/unit
We have seen PHE visits to our clients swiftly followed by subsequent HSE spot inspections. Both agencies have been utilising a number of different ways to gather intelligence with a combination of site visits, video calls and document/information requests.
It is essential a business' response to regulators making enquiries about a company's COVID-19 arrangements puts its "best foot forwards". This should ensure minimum reputational and commercial exposure and risk to the business; to include minimising the prospect of any formal investigation and enforcement action by regulator.
How can we help?
In recent months, we have advised and represented numerous businesses in respect of their COVID-19 policies and arrangements following regulatory inspections and disclosure requests, including businesses that have implemented our recommendations and subsequently been deemed compliant by PHE, the HSE and Local Authorities.
We can support you and your business through any regulatory intervention by advising on:
- Effective arrangements that can be put in place to manage your interactions with PHE, the HSE and local authorities
- Responses to regulators' requests with a view to evidencing the company's compliance and minimising the prospect of further enquiries, potential enforcement action, and associated adverse PR
- Whether the matter is RIDDOR reportable. Only RIDDOR reporting when required is essential, not least because it often results in a formal investigation
- Challenging notifications of contravention, improvement notices and prohibition notices
Separately, we also have significant experience of proactively conducting audits, covered by legal professional privilege, of a company's COVID-19 risk management arrangements to "strength test" whether they address the relevant PHE/government/HSE/industry body guidance, and recommending improvements (which have subsequently been deemed compliant by both the HSE and local authorities).
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.