Implications of coronavirus local lockdown measures

The Prime Minister set out in his announcement on 17 July that, from 18 July, local authorities in England will be able to take action to implement localised lockdown measures. This includes closing specific premises and restricting travel. So far in England, a number of areas have faced local lockdown rules with some businesses in these areas having to remain closed while other parts of the country come out of national lockdown restrictions.

These measures may continue for months to come until case numbers decrease, or a suitable vaccine is developed, and employers must be prepared for this. Even though businesses may not be asked to close, depending on the gravity of the coronavirus issue in the region, employers still need to act quickly to any news of local restrictions as it could impact them in future if cases continue to rise. Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores this in more detail below.

Employers should think about the following if restrictions, or indeed lockdown rules, are implemented in the region where their business is situated:

  • how can employers contribute or help to reduce rising numbers of coronavirus cases

  • if asked to close.

Helping to reduce cases

The Government announced in May that England's Test and Trace system, designed to track down individuals who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, is now live. This new system asks anyone in England who has tested positive for Covid-19 to log onto the NHS Test and Trace website and provide details of anyone they have recently been in contact with.

The Government also released guidance on how employers in England can help slow, and eventually stop, the spread of the virus with the help of the NHS Test and Trace system. The two main roles an employer has are:

  • to make workspaces as safe as possible by fixing barriers between staff and customers (for those who work on stalls/counters); enforcing social distancing of at least one-metre-plus, depending on workforce size; and/or changing shift patterns to reduce the amount of staff in the workplace at any given time

  • to support staff who are notified by the system and encourage them to self-isolate and co-operate with guidance — if an employee is contacted, employers can offer support by not requiring them to show up at work; Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) would be payable from day one if the employee meets the criteria for it, which can be claimed back under the Coronavirus SSP Rebate Scheme (to a maximum of 14 days) eligible for employers with fewer than 250 employees.

If employers are asked to close

If employers are told to close to help reduce the number of cases on the rise in specific regions, as seen in Leicester and Aberdeen, then employers should consider the following:

  • a period of homeworking where possible — since 1 August, employers in England have been granted more discretion to return staff to work safely. However, while it is discretionary, employers may find that this is the best way to deal with short-term coronavirus lockdown implementations

  • continued periods of full furlough — the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends on 31 October 2020, a grant to help employers retain staff during the pandemic where 80% of wages can be claimed even though staff will not be carrying out any work. Since 1 September, the Government's contributions have decreased to 70% which means that employers will need to top this up by 10%; similarly, in October, Government contributions will decrease further to 60% meaning employers have to top this up by 20% to total 80% in both months

  • permit the use of accrued annual leave, or unpaid leave.

It seems that the closing of businesses will be a last resort by the Government as reports have shown that it is to launch a campaign to encourage more workers to return to the office, amid fears that less city-centre footfall is impacting upon businesses based there. This move is set to coincide with schools reopening in England and Wales in the first week of September, with the argument that working parents now, ideally, will not need to spend as much time at home.

With this in mind, and to reiterate, employers should be aware that they owe their staff a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to safeguard their wellbeing at work. This is extended to both employees and non-employees, including visitors and workers. Employers should therefore ensure that the workplace is always Covid-secure. It is up to employers to put health and safety measures in place, as listed above, for a safe return to work.

The Government encourages employers to incorporate safe working into return to work risk assessments and involve staff as much as possible.

Takeaway

While the Government has said that it will likely not be introducing another national lockdown measure to tackle rising cases, localised lockdown measures or restrictions are a very real possibility, as seen in the North, which employers need to be prepared for. Preparing for closures, however unlikely this may be, will ensure that employers will not be caught unaware as they may have been at the start of the pandemic.

Recent development

Payment will now be given, as a trial period, to low income workers in parts of England with high cases of coronavirus — if they test positive for the virus. Eligible people will be able to claim £13 daily (to a maximum of £182) if they must self-isolate and are not able to work from home.

Eligibility for this scheme includes being employed, not qualifying for SSP (as the lower earnings limit per week is £120) and receiving Universal Credit/Working Tax Credit. The scheme began on 1 September, specifically in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham and is not yet a country wide implementation. It is still uncertain when it will be rolled out nationwide, if at all.

The scheme will be implemented as follows:

  • £130 (at £13 daily) will be payable if an eligible individual tests positive for coronavirus and must self-isolate for 10 days

  • £182 (also at £13 daily) will be payable if a member of an individual's household tests positive for coronavirus and they are asked to self-isolate for 14 days

  • £13 daily will be payable if an individual is identified as “a non-household contact of another person” who tests positive for coronavirus and must self-isolate until 14 days after they were most recently in contact with the person who has tested positive.