Implications for Employers Due to the Delay in the Easing of Lockdown Restrictions

The long-awaited exit from lockdown has been delayed, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson warning a spike in cases of the Delta (Indian) variant could lead to a surge in hospitalisations.  

Emerging from Lockdown – Guidance for UK Employers

COVID-19 Restrictions Continue to Impact UK Businesses

On Monday 14 June 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the full easing of all lockdown restrictions planned for 21 June 2021 in England has been potentially delayed by a period of 4 weeks, subject to a further review in 2 weeks’ time.

The devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had previously announced an easing of restrictions which brought them closely in line with those restrictions set out at step 3 of the roadmap in England but considering the PM’s announcement on Monday it looks increasingly unlikely that any further easing of restrictions will be announced any time soon, or at least before the end of June. 

A Disjointed Four Nations Approach to Lockdown Restrictions

Since the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland decided to break lockstep with the UK government in favour of adopting their own approach to lockdown restrictions, many have been left confused and uncertain about what is or isn’t permissible.

In England, where a four-step roadmap out of lockdown is in place, more businesses were able to reopen when England moved to step 3, but the decision to delay the full easing of lockdown restrictions and remain at step 3 will create serious implications for employers who had hoped all COVID-19 restrictions would end on 21 June 2021 as originally planned.

Covid-19 Restrictions in England

In Scotland, where a five-tier protection system (0-4) is in place and which can be applied separately to each local authority area, more businesses were able to reopen from 5 June 2021 when many areas moved from level 3 to level 2 and from level 2 to level 1, subject to remaining social distancing restrictions, but soft play, nightclubs and adult entertainment venues must remain closed and many businesses in the tourism, hospitality and events sectors remain adversely affected.

Covid-19 Restrictions in Scotland

In Wales, where a four-level alert system is in place (1-4), some restrictions were eased from 7 June 2021 when Wales moved from level 2 to level 1.  Many more businesses were able to reopen, but skating rinks, nightclubs and adult entertainment venues must remain closed. 

Covid-19 Restrictions in Wales

In Northern Ireland there has also been a slight easing of restrictions and many businesses have been able to reopen, but the overriding message is that working from home where possible should remain the default position and that employers should take every step possible to facilitate home working.

Covid-19 Restrictions in Northern Ireland

The Delay on Easing Lockdown Restrictions – Implications for Employers

The Prime Minister’s announcement was in response to a notable rise in the R number across all regions of the UK and continuing concerns over the impact of the Delta (Indian) COVID-19 variant.

For those businesses with employees currently working from home, the default position across all regions of the UK is that employees who can work from home should continue to do so. 

There is no change to the guidance in respect of employees who cannot work from home – in these circumstances, employees continue to be permitted to work in their usual workplaces, and the working safely during coronavirus guidance continues to apply.

The delay in any further easing of lockdown restrictions is impacting all businesses, but those in the tourism, hospitality and events sectors appear to be affected most, not least due to continuing restrictions on how many people venues can safely accommodate with social distancing measures in place.

Practical Considerations for Employers

Many employers may also need to reassess their staffing requirements and quickly decide what this means for any recent job offers and current furlough arrangements and the cost implications of extending furlough beyond 1 July 2021 will need to be carefully considered.

Although the furlough scheme was previously extended until 30 September 2021, the level of grant available to employers will be reduced from 80% (up to a max. of £2,500):

  • From 1 July 2021 the grant available to employers reduces to 70% (up to a max. of £2,187.50).
  • From 1 August it will reduce again to 60% (up to a max. of £1,875).

Can an employer withdraw offers of employment or delay start dates for new recruits in light of the COVID-19 outbreak?

The first point to consider is whether a contract of employment has been entered into with the new recruits. 

If the new recruits have accepted an offer of employment without conditions, and there is therefore a binding contract of employment, then notice would need to be served in order to terminate the contract before they commence employment.  If there is a binding contract in force between the parties then any change in the start date will constitute a change in contractual terms. In this case, an employer would only be able to make a change to the start date either with the express consent of the new recruits or if it has an express contractual right to do so.

How should an employer go about making redundancies?

It may not always be possible for an employer to avoid making redundancies, even where alternatives are considered first. There are five principles for employers to follow when considering redundancies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Do it openly. The sooner people understand the situation, the better for everyone.
  • Do it thoroughly. People need information and guidance so ensure that you have trained staff representatives in how the redundancy process works.
  • Do it genuinely. Listen to people’s views before making a decision, be open to alternatives from individuals and unions and always feed back to them.
  • Do it fairly. Any redundancy procedure should be conducted fairly and without any form of discrimination.
  • Do it with dignity. Consider ahead how to handle the conversation and whether it will be face-to-face or remote. The way an employer makes redundancies says a lot about the organisation’s values.

We considered Redundancy and the impact of COVID-19 in a recent bulletin – Redundancy – Getting it Right For Employers