Claire Simms, HR consultant at Croner-i considers the implications of the change in Government guidance regarding face coverings.
With the Government confirming that face coverings will no longer be compulsory in shops, hospitality and on public transport in England from 19 July 2021, employers will be asking what this means for them.
From 19 July 2021, there will be a shift by the Government from instructing us all to follow strict rules to a greater emphasis on individuals making their own decisions on what steps they feel they should be taking to keep themselves safe. This shift of responsibility gives employers more flexibility when it comes to deciding whether to require staff to continue wearing face coverings in the workplace but also leaves employers with a difficult decision to make.
The Government will provide guidance on where individuals may still choose to wear a face covering, for example in places where they come into contact with those who are outside of their bubble. However, ultimately, in the workplace the decision will be left to the employer.
What does this mean in practice?
Should employers keep asking employees to wear face coverings at work when the Government guidance changes?
As an employer, your duty of care to safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of your employees does not change because the Government states that people no longer have to wear face coverings. When making their decision, employers should consider the nature of the workforce and listen to individual concerns. There are likely to be some employees who will be relieved to not have to wear face coverings; however, as they are worn to protect people around an individual, rather than the wearers themselves, there are also likely to be a number of employees who are concerned about the implications of not wearing one .Furthermore, you may have younger staff who have not had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, or vulnerable/extremely vulnerable staff who are concerned about colleagues not wearing face coverings.
The organisation should review its Covid risk assessments in view of the changes. This will help you decide on which controls, such as the continued use of face coverings, might need to be retained. You can then update your policy on face coverings in the workplace and communicate it to all staff, so employees know where they stand. If you decide to make face coverings mandatory in the workplace, remember that some employees may continue to be exempt.
Alternatively, your policy may be that face coverings are no longer required but staff can wear a face covering if they want to, or that face coverings are required only in certain circumstances, such as meetings over a certain size, etc.
Be prepared that you may receive some resistance from whichever group has not achieved their preferred outcome. Employees should be expected to comply with workplace rules set by the employer. However, to manage any such resistance, listen to individual circumstances and explain how these have been taken into account in your risk assessments.
Bear in mind that it is not just in the actual workplace that employees may be concerned; public transport may be a worry to some employees if others are no longer wearing face coverings, especially at peak travel times.
If we get rid of face coverings in the workplace, what practical things can employers do to alleviate concerns?
There are various measures that you can consider from a HR and health and safety point of view to help make employees feel more comfortable with the transition to a face covering free workplace.
Double down on hand sanitiser, hygiene measures and workplace cleanliness.
Consider keeping social distancing measures in place even after the removal of the Government’s social distancing guidance.
Keep the workplace well ventilated.
Continue with regular Covid testing in work.
Let employees wear face coverings if they wish to continue.
Have a rule in your Face Covering Policy that if an employee would like a colleague to wear a face covering when in close proximity, that they do so.
Empower employees to tell colleagues when they are not comfortable with someone being so close to them without a face covering on.
Remind employees to be respectful of their colleagues’ wishes; employees can have many reasons, which are not immediately apparent, for being cautious.
Do another vaccine awareness drive to increase the number of vaccinated employees.
Consider full pay for employees on sick leave with Covid (it is difficult for an employee to prove that they contracted Covid at work but it could alleviate some concerns if employees know that if they do fall ill with the virus (at work or otherwise) that they would not suffer financially).
Reconsider any stance on working from home, especially for vulnerable workers, until as much of the workforce as possible is vaccinated, despite the removal of the Government’s working from home guidance.
If employees are concerned about using public transport, consider allowing employees to adjust working hours so they can avoid peak travel.
From 19 July 2021, it will be the employer’s choice whether to require employees to wear face coverings in the workplace or not. This will be a difficult decision for many employers trying to balance the individual circumstances of the workforce.
Whichever route the employer decides to take is likely to meet with some resistance from one group or another. Make sure you listen to employee concerns and redo your workplace coronavirus risk assessment. Review this regularly to ensure your risk control measures are working as expected. Have a clear, reasonable policy and be prepared to justify your approach.