Health & safety trumps personal choice as Covid measures lifted

Out-Law News | 15 Jul 2021 | 9:34 am |

Katherine Metcalfe tells HRNews about the health and safety issues facing UK employers when Covid measures are lifted from 19 July

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  • Transcript

    As you be aware, Monday is Freedom Day, 19 July, when the UK government is expected to lift virtually all Covid restrictions with emphasis shifting to personal responsibility. But what does that mean for employers? On Tuesday we heard from Anne Sammon explaining how the lifting of restrictions will bring challenges and the risk of upsetting staff if this is not managed well. Of course employers have legal duties to carry out to keep employees safe and so we are coming back to this to consider the health and safety angle. 

    As Personnel Today reports, unions and employers have been seeking clarity around mask-wearing and social distancing as the government tells us all to ‘learn to live with the virus’ and ‘exercise judgment’ over these things. The TUC has written to the UK government criticising a lack of consultation over back-to-work safety plans and the emphasis on personal responsibility without clear guidance. 

    To complicate matter there are differences throughout the UK. So, Scotland has been moving more slowly than England and has more restrictions in law, rather than guidance. As The Scotsman reported, on Tuesday First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed mainland Scotland will move to the lowest level of Covid-19 restrictions from July 19 but mitigations such as mandatory face coverings will remain in place. That’s in contrast to England where face masks will not be mandatory and instead will be a matter of personal choice – although there are regional variations with London’s mayor insisting on mask wearing on London transport.  

    Face masks is one of the issues being raised by clients. Health and safety specialist Katherine Metcalfe has been busy fielding questions and she joined me by video link from Scotland to discuss the wider health and safety piece. I started by asking Katherine about that issue of different rules in different parts of the UK:

    Katherine Metcalfe: “Well, Joe, lots of our clients try and have a universal health and safety policy across the whole of the UK, so far as they can, but certainly in relation to COVID, as we start to see restrictions ease in different parts of the UK at different speeds, that's not going to be possible. So, whereas the need for face coverings, social distancing, will be greatly reduced for England after Freedom Day on 19 July, the Scottish Government, for example, is moving much more slowly and those requirements will remain enshrined in law in Scotland and so there will be a need for different approaches in different parts of the UK for the foreseeable future.”

    Joe Glavina: “Can I ask you about risk assessments Katherine because, presumably, they will remain a central requirement.”

    Katherine Metcalfe: “Absolutely, risk assessment is absolutely key to this. What is the risk of COVID transmission within your workplace and what are the control measures that you need to have in place to deal with that? Now, when the law, and when government guidance, on managing COVID changes that is a reason to review your risk assessment and weigh up whether you still need all of the measures in place which you and you have had over the course of the last year and a bit. Certainly many of my clients are looking at whether they can roll back some measures, for example, to increase occupancy levels within their offices, but they are weighing that up against other considerations. You know, there is a real risk of employees going off and self-isolating if COVID does take a hold in your workplace and people are at home. So, there are different things to weigh up and I don't necessarily think it's the case that everyone will just do away with all of the COVID-secure measures that have been in place to date.”

    Joe Glavina: “We know the government wants everyone to take more personal responsibility but when it comes to health and safety duties in the workplace that concept isn’t helpful is it?”

    Katherine Metcalfe: “It’s quite difficult in a health and safety context because generally speaking, employees don't choose which health and safety measures they do and don't comply with. So, it's the employer’s responsibility to do the risk assessment, to identify the control measures that are appropriate for their workplace and then to put those in place and to enforce them and. It’s the expectation that employees will follow those control measures so there isn't really a place for personal responsibility in the sense of choosing which workplace rules to comply with. Where I think it does have a useful role is for employees considering what they do in their own time. So, for example, they might if they're going on a work trip, or they're coming to the office next week, think about whether they do want to wear a mask or on a trip to the cinema, or a trip out to a restaurant or whatever it might be, to weigh up the risk of bringing COVID back into the workplace afterwards.”

    Joe Glavina: “You’ve previously talked about how, over time, COVID will become like any other health and safety risk that needs managing. What’s your advice on dealing with that?”

    Katherine Metcalfe: “Well, really, I do expect that as people become comfortable with returning to the workplace, with social distancing measures being phased out, that COVID will become a bit more like any other health and safety risk that's being managed by an employer. So, it continues to be a hazardous substance for the purpose of the Control of Substances Hazard to Health Regulations and that means it does need a risk assessment and control measures, but I don't think it will be the big red risk in flashing lights that has to be managed above all else. It will just become another risk in the mix, like managing Legionella risk in water supply or managing fire risk within a building. So really just a constant process of review as people become more comfortable with being back at work.”

    As I mentioned at the start of the programme, on Tuesday Anne Sammon covered the employment law implications post 19 July. That programme is called: ‘Lifting of restrictions will bring challenges for employers’ and is available for viewing now from the Outlaw website.