Out-Law Analysis 3 min. read

Coronavirus: how can UK employers prepare for a second wave?

UK employers can take practical steps to ensure that they are prepared in the event of a second wave of Covid-19 infection.

With by far the most significant easing of the UK’s lockdown measures imminent, the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus needs to be considered. Scientific experts have warned that this is a “real risk” and have urged plans to be put in place accordingly, most recently in an open letter to the leaders of all of the UK’s political parties.

Employers cannot expect that the government, employees, clients and customers will respond to a second wave of coronavirus in the same way as they did when the infection first reached the UK. They can expect two significant differences in particular:

  • no furlough scheme (or very limited furlough remaining should the second wave hit before the end of the existing scheme). It seems highly unlikely that the government would introduce a new scheme in the event of a second wave;
  • less tolerance of coronavirus-related disruption by employees, clients and customers. The initial wave of Covid-19 was genuinely unprecedented and, in general, everybody was very understanding and accommodating as a result. Companies cannot realistically expect the same degree of tolerance and flexibility in the event of a second wave.

It is therefore vital that employers put contingency plans in place to ensure that they are as well-prepared for a second wave of Covid-19 as possible, even as they prepare for a gradual return to normality over the coming months.

Preparing for a second wave: practical tips

Review and amend employees’ contracts of employment to ensure maximum flexibility in future. This might include inserting lay-off clauses, or giving the company an express right to require an individual to work from home.

The mental health of employees is particularly at risk during lockdown, and the impact may be disproportionately high where people had thought a return to normality was in sight.

Ensure sufficient support networks are in place for those employees required to work from home again. The mental health of employees is particularly at risk during lockdown, and the impact may be disproportionately high where people had thought a return to normality was in sight. As such, it is even more important to ensure employees are as well-supported as possible in the event of a second wave.

There are various additional considerations which should be taken into account regarding working from home, particularly for those businesses where this was not prevalent prior to the initial lockdown:

  • introduce a formal working from home policy, or review your existing policy if you already have one in place. As well as dealing with the day to day practicalities of working from home, this should also cover other important issues like data protection. Some of the content should be dictated by issues that you have encountered during the current lockdown, to ensure that the lessons you have learned are not wasted;
  • review your arrangements for ensuring compliance with display screen equipment rules for employees working from home. Guidance from the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on “temporary” working from home arrangements is under review and more onerous obligations arise where employees continue, or resume, working from home;
  • plan for employees who may not be able to obtain childcare and therefore cannot easily work from home. This is one area in particular where many employers have ‘muddled through’ during the initial lockdown phase, but a more carefully thought through approach should be adopted for the longer term;
  • ensure that all IT equipment and systems are optimised so that any further enforced working from home is as efficient as possible.

You should manage employee expectations when bringing people back to work. Employers should be as open as possible about the contingency plans that are being put in place so that if and when these do need to be implemented, they will not come as a surprise to employees. Involve employee forums, where applicable, in these planning processes, as this will also make implementation of the plans easier.

Ensure that you have a detailed plan in place in case the impact of a second wave is such that redundancies are unavoidable. This could include setting up an employee forum for collective consultation purposes if you don’t already have one in place.

Consider what other cost saving measures you can implement in the event of a second wave, and ensure you have the necessary flexibility to implement these measures. Many of these might mirror some of the steps taken during the first phase. Again, managing employee expectations will be critical.

Keep your Covid-19 risk assessment and standard operating procedures under review to ensure that the right control measures are in place. Local variation may be required if restrictions are reintroduced in specific geographical areas to address new spikes in cases. Closely monitor how control measures are working in practice, and consult with employees regularly.

For those employees who would still be required to attend work in the event of a second wave, ensure that you are ready to implement measures to minimise any risk to their health and safety. As well as simply being the right thing to do, employers should be aware that section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act gives employees a right not to attend work if they reasonably believe that doing so would pose a “serious and imminent” risk to their health and safety. We would expect employees to invoke this protection much more readily during a second wave than has been the case during the initial wave of Covid-19.

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