Legal Implications on Returning to Offices as Lockdown Restrictions Ease

As lockdown restrictions continues to ease across the UK, we consider the legal implications for employers on workers returning to offices and the steps they should be taking to mitigate risks.

The Easing of Lockdown Restrictions

As Coronavirus continues to impact the day-to-day operations of businesses across the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that most Covid restrictions will be lifted across England on 19 July.

Restrictions in other parts of the UK have also started to ease and Mainland Scotland and the Scottish Islands not already in Level 0 look set to move Level 0 from 19 July, but the Scottish administration has made clear in its latest updated framework that it will continue to promote home working where possible.  It is important to note that Employment Law is reserved to the UK Government, so although the Scottish administration can give its recommendation to businesses it is extremely restricted in its ability to make financial and legal changes to support home working so it is unlikely that any compulsory changes will come into effect that mandate home working as Scotland moves into Level 0.

The details of precisely what restrictions remain in place can be found in the updated guidance published by each of the four nations:

Managing the Transition Back to Work

Many employers adversely impacted by the Covid restrictions will undoubtedly be relieved that they can reopen and those who have already reopened albeit on a restricted basis will also be relieved that they can now ramp up their operations, but employers must remember that the legal position and rights of employees being required to return to work remain the unchanged.

Employers will need to manage the transition carefully and not lose sight of the fact that the Covid pandemic may have also adversely affected the lives of many of their workers in a variety of different ways, so a cautious and consultative approach with workers and unions is recommended. 

The push to have workers return to their normal place of work could give rise to a variety of issues, including:

  • Flexible working requests
  • Grievances
  • Unfair dismissal claims
  • Health and safety and whistleblowing claims
  • Discrimination claims

The Legacy of Covid-19 Restrictions

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic a ‘new’ normal has emerged and the harsh reality is that after over a year of working from home and other flexible working arrangements being in place many businesses have continued to function, so many workers may be resistant to returning to workplaces and reverting to the “old” way of doing things.  

The key to avoiding issues is to plan well in advance and to consult with workers about these plans in order to address any questions or concerns they might have which may need to be addressed and actioned and to ensure unnecessary surprises are avoided.

The legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic and the myriad of challenges this has created for employers and workers alike is likely to be long-lasting and the benefits of having a robust and sustainable plan for the future cannot be understated.