Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, details the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of England’s lockdown and the HR implications of it.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set out his roadmap for lifting England’s current lockdown, in place since 5 January 2021, balancing continued caution with the need to restore freedoms and boost the economy.
Each step will be at least five weeks apart — four weeks for collection and analysis of data and one week’s notice of any changes. Therefore, the steps listed below are all subject to delay if evidence shows that new problems have arisen.
The following tests will be considered between each stage:
the vaccine rollout’s continued success
hospital admissions and deaths continuing to fall
pressure on the NHS does not reach unacceptable levels
the impact of any new/existing variants of the virus.
The roadmap in a nutshell
The four steps
There will be a focus on schools from 8 March 2021. Pupils in all schools and further education settings will return to face-to-face teaching with breakfast and after school clubs reopened together with sporting activities for children “where necessary to help parents to work”.
From 29 March 2021, tennis and basketball can resume and outdoor pools can reopen. People must still work from home if possible but there will no longer be a legal requirement to stay at home.
From 12 April 2021, if the four tests have been met, hairdressers, nail salons, non-essential retail, gyms, libraries, and holiday lets can reopen. Pubs and restaurant can open for outdoor service with no curfew and no requirement for alcohol to be accompanied by a substantial meal.
No earlier than 17 May 2021, pubs and restaurants can resume serving indoors. Theatres, cinemas and concert halls will also reopen, as will some sports stadia (up to 10,000 people or a quarter of the stadium's capacity, whichever is the lower).
Finally, and no earlier than 21 June 2021, the last set of restrictions will be lifted, including on nightclubs.
This roadmap is good news for employers as they will now have some direction for the future of their business; however, this is dependent on how the pandemic progresses. It is therefore crucial that employers not only plan for the future, with the above dates in mind, but also have consideration for the possibility that the roadmap may be extended.
Working parents with fewer childcaring issues, due to all schools reopening on the 8 March 2021, may now be in a stronger position to return to work. Therefore, employers should communicate with them and keep in mind that the usual procedures should be followed for ending a period of furlough or a temporary period of flexible working.
Employers should note that staff may still have some childcare issues — for example, if they need to drop children at school and pick them up — that may need to be considered. Additionally, some schools may reopen at different times, so this should also be considered.
As well as the above measures, the Government will be carrying out a series of reviews to explore further ways of easing limits, as follows:
the first will examine how long we need to maintain social distancing and face coverings, as well as informing guidance on working from home (which should continue wherever possible until this review is complete)
a second review will consider the resumption of international travel with a report by 12 April 2021 so that people can plan for the summer
the third review will consider the potential role of “Covid-status certification” in helping venues to open safely
the fourth review will look at the safe return of major events.
Government guidance on each of the review points so far remains the same as it has been since the start of the current lockdown in England, meaning employers will need to continue to find alternative ways of managing their business needs — particularly when it comes to homeworking and travelling abroad for business.
The advice for employees to work from home where possible is expected to remain until at least 21 June 2021, but the review that is scheduled on a date yet to be confirmed indicates that this guidance may be changed before this date. Employers will need to keep up to date with government guidance on this in order to better inform their decisions on how quickly they can bring their staff back to the office.
Where travel is concerned, not only will employers have to prepare for the resumption of international travel for the sake of their business but also where staff are concerned. Employers should keep in mind that if restrictions on travel are lifted this summer, they may see a surge in the number of employees booking annual leave at the same time. To manage this, it is advisable that employers encourage staff to stagger their annual leave from now. Ultimately though, annual leave requests should be dealt with according to the company’s policy and how they would usually deal with multiple requests at any given time. Remember that employers do not have to accept annual leave requests if it is not in the best of interest of their business to do so.
The Prime Minister’s roadmap did not give new insight on shielding in England but does further confirm that clinically extremely vulnerable people should continue to shield in England until the end of the current national lockdown at the end of March 2021.
On 17 March 2021, it was confirmed that people would no longer be told to shield in England from 1 April 2021, which will also be the case in Wales. In Scotland, shielding will end from 26 April.
Individuals in England who are asked to shield are advised to work from home wherever possible but where remote working is not possible, shielders are still not expected to attend work. Where the latter is concerned, it may be necessary to consider placing affected staff on furlough or on statutory sick pay.
When shielding comes to an end, individuals will be able to return to work if they cannot work from home. However, employers should take steps to consider their individual circumstances.
Scotland and Wales
In Scotland, pupils in primary years 1–3 returned to the classroom from 22 February 2021; from 15 March 2021, years 4–7 will also return and secondary school pupils will begin a combination of online and classroom learning.
From 5 April 2021, people will no longer be required to stay at home, schools will reopen fully, and click and collect will resume.
From 26 April 2021, Scotland will return to a levels system with the aim of placing the whole of Scotland into level 3. On this date, non-essential shops and leisure centres will be allowed to reopen — eg. gyms, pubs, retail, and restaurants, with restrictions in place.
From 17 May 2021, indoor hospitality will be able to return to more normality, albeit with restrictions in place, and remaining closed businesses, such as cinemas and bingo halls, will be able to reopen. It is expected that normality may be able to resume later in the summer.
In Wales, children aged between 3–7 have returned to the classroom since 22 February 2021. Stay at home rules will be reviewed on 12 March 2021 and it may be possible for non-essential shops to reopen from 15 March 2021.
Also from 15 March 2021, other primary school children and some secondary school pupils were allowed back into the classroom; all pupils are expected to return to the classroom after the Easter holidays.
In both countries, homeworking advice has not changed, meaning people should continue to work from home where possible. Both First Ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have expressed that easing lockdown will be cautious and dependent on coronavirus data.
England, Scotland and Wales’ roadmaps all seek to focus on data and not dates. Still, employers across all three nations will now be able to plan for the future as much as possible. It is still very important, however, that employers continue to keep up to date with any updates from the UK Government, as we continue to move forward, on how likely it is that they will be able to reopen as planned.