With the UK Government having encouraged people in England to return to the office since July, many observers have been wondering whether this advice could change in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases over the winter.
Across the rest of the UK, staff are still being encouraged to work from home where possible. So, amid worries about the current coronavirus case numbers, could now be the right moment for England to follow suit?
What is the present advice in England, and what changes could happen?
Since the easing of most restrictions on social contact in England on 19 July, people have not been asked by the Government to work from home. Furthermore, in his recent Conservative Party conference speech, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that coming back to the office was key to making workforces more productive.
However, while workers are no longer subject to social distancing limits, businesses are still legally obliged to manage the risks that staff and customers face. They are required to comply with the UK Government’s official guidance on safe working practices during the pandemic, and to undertake COVID risk assessments. Some businesses are also keeping in place longstanding measures for managing the risks, such as one-way systems and enhanced cleaning routines.
Firms across England are also still widely carrying out regular lateral flow testing. More in-depth advice is available for particular industries, such as hospitality, manufacturing and construction.
However, the Government has also prepared an Autumn and Winter Plan for dealing with COVID-19 over the coming months. Contained within this are two proposals: Plan A and Plan B, with the first of these focused on the vaccine rollout, including booster jabs for the over 50s, health workers and the most vulnerable, as well as single jabs for children aged between 12 and 15. Those who have not yet been vaccinated are also still being encouraged to come forward.
In the event of the NHS being put under unacceptable strain, however, Plan B – or elements of it – could be put into motion. This may include advice that staff go back to working from home for a “limited period”.
How effective is home working in minimising the spread of COVID-19?
The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has stated that working from home is one of the most effective ways to reduce social contacts, and has a “strong impact” against transmission of the virus.
By working remotely, employees can greatly decrease the level of face-to-face contact they have with colleagues and other people they may encounter during the typical working day, such as fellow commuters on public transport.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, has said that the reintroduction of restrictions may be needed if there is a steep increase in COVID-19 cases.
Can I request the right to continue working from home?
While employees are entitled to ask their employer to be permitted to work from home, employers are not required to agree to such a request, even for workers who have operated from home throughout the pandemic.
However, the Chartered Institute for Professional Development (CIPD), which represents HR professionals, anticipates that in future, staff will be given far greater freedom and flexibility with regard to how, when and where they work.
The professional association has stated that “it should be down to individual organisations, consulting with their people, to agree working arrangements.”
A consultation has been launched by the Government on making flexible working the default option for all personnel from their first day in a job. Staff presently face a six-month wait before they have the right to ask for a flexible working arrangement. The Government will also look into the present process, and consider whether employers wishing to turn down a flexible working request should be required to propose alternatives.
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