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One of the key problems for both employers and workers during the Covid-19 pandemic is how to manage working practices, either through the continued use of office space in accordance with government guidance, or remote working.

A recent freedom of information request from Public Health England has shown that in the second half of 2020, there were more than 500 outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks in office-based environments – more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined.

Government guidance from 6 January 2021, states that individuals may only leave home for work if they cannot reasonably work from home. However, the Health and Safety Executive reportedly received nearly 4,000 Covid related complaints in January, and whistleblowing charity Protect has seen a sharp increase in Covid related whistleblowing complaints.

Employers should be mindful of forcing workers to come into the office. Employers who disregard employee concerns and enforce a policy of office working may find themselves facing claims for unfair dismissal and/or for an unlawful detriment.

To reduce a worker viewing the office as an unsafe environment or bringing a claim because of these views, as a minimum an employer should:

  • assess their individual needs through a Covid-19 risk assessment, communicate the protective measures to all workers, and encourage feedback on the proposals
  • enforce social distancing and consider disciplinary action if this is breached
  • keep the office clean and tidy, and workers are encouraged to wash hands and keep to a high standard of hygiene
  • make sure fresh air enters the office through open windows and/or another approved ventilation system. The Sage committee suggests that poorly ventilated offices could increase the chances of contracting Covid from tiny airborne particles by up to 70%
  • create a policy for any visitors, e.g. enforce the wearing of masks and provide for the NHS track and trace system to operate
  • establish a reporting procedure for anyone who is taken unwell, displays symptoms of Covid-19, or is required to self-isolate
  • minimise the number of unnecessary visits to the office
  • facilitate working from home as much as possible.

New guidance from 10 February 2021 states that employers should continue to adopt these measures even if workers have received a recent negative test result or have had the vaccine.

Rapid lateral flow tests can be ordered to test employees with no coronavirus symptoms. These tests can be ordered if:

  • the business is registered in England
  • more than 50 people are employed
  • employees cannot work from home.

For further information, and to register for rapid lateral flow tests, please visit the Government guidance on working safely during Coronavirus.

This article was co-written by Louise Attrup, employment partner and Jenny Dodds, employment legal assistant. 

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.