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After many weeks of businesses urgently clambering to understand the Government’s job retention scheme and place relevant employees on furlough leave, we are now being encouraged to look at what steps we can take to return to some degree of normality.

The Government’s position on the lockdown is softening and as widely anticipated, we are moving towards a gradual relaxation over the coming weeks. Boris Johnson’s announcement on 10 May was followed quickly by the surprising announcement that the furlough scheme, already extended by one month to the end of June, would be extended further until October. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, confirmed that the Government will ask companies to “start sharing” the cost of the scheme from August, currently around £14bn a month.

Ending furlough and/or temporary contractual arrangements agreed with staff will present some difficulties. Based on our recent experiences, there has been some resistance from employees when their employer attempts to bring them off furlough leave and/or vary any working from home arrangements that may be currently in force. The Government’s advice throughout the COVID-19 outbreak has been that employees should work from home where possible and that if it is not possible to work from home, employees should return to work with social distancing measures in  place. In the event that employers have trialled homeworking arrangements and this has not worked or indeed that they have furloughed staff due to a lack of work and there is now plenty of work to be done, it is perfectly reasonable for employers to either end furlough leave and/or discuss with staff about ending home working and/or temporary part time working arrangements.

How employers approach this issue will be very important.  It is vital  for employers to explain why it is necessary to review and/or change the current arrangements including the impact on the business and what measures the employer is taking to protect individuals when they do return to work.

If employees refuse to accept a reasonable instruction to return to work then this may be a disciplinary matter, but it will be important to review any furlough agreement and/or any temporary variation to contract which was agreed with the employee and bring this contractual arrangement to an end properly.

The Government’s advice remains that employers need to be mindful of any genuine medical reasons why employees may be reluctant to return to work including any shielding by those employees and/or any member of their household.  It will, therefore, be necessary for employers to deal with each case on an individual basis. Employees are entitled to a safe system of work and should not be dismissed or subject to detriment for refusing to work due to justified health and safety concerns.

It is important to remember that the furlough scheme was designed to avoid businesses having to make redundancies.  There are of course some businesses which have been completely unaffected by the current outbreak and indeed some which have thrived due to increased demand (suppliers of PPE and supermarkets are obvious examples).  It is now clear that there will need to be a (potentially prolonged) period of business and life returning to normal without a vaccine and with social distancing remaining in force. As a result, we are seeing signs of business activity tentatively starting to return.  This will mean that employers will need to start reviewing furlough and other temporary arrangements they have put in place with staff.

The last two months have been a very challenging period for employers and employees alike.  Workplaces will, however, need to return to some degree of normality to avoid a catastrophic impact upon the country’s economy.

If you need any advice regarding furlough and/or temporary work arrangements which have been put in place in recent weeks and advice on bringing these to an end, then do get in touch with our employment team.

Last updated on 13/05/2020

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.