Last reviewed 15 July 2020

Reader note — December 2020. This article refers to self-isolation periods of 14 days which was correct at the time it was written. Please note that self-isolation periods have undergone adjustment and may no longer be 14 days.

Health leaders have urged for a review on the UK’s preparedness for a second wave of coronavirus infections. Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores some of these issues in more detail below.

In a letter published in the British Medical Journal, UK ministers have been warned that urgent action is needed to ensure that there is no further loss of life if a second wave of infections were to arise.

On Tuesday 23 June, the Prime Minister announced further changes to lockdown rules in England to allow for more flexibility of movement, social distancing and rules on carrying out business. With news of the two-metre rule in England now “one-metre plus” and pubs, restaurants, cinemas and hairdressers reopening on 4 July, the Department of Health has said that it would stay alert by keeping up to date with the latest scientific advice.

Still, talks of a second wave will likely dominate conversations across the UK for the next couple of weeks. However, it is not just the UK Government that need to stay alert, employers will also need to factor in the possibility that a sudden rise in infection rates could threaten any plans they have to get their businesses back to some form of normality — especially for employers who have had to remain shut throughout the duration of the lockdown.

To help tackle the likelihood of this, employers are being asked by the Government to:

  • avoid face-to-face seating arrangements in the office by changing office layouts where applicable

  • reduce the number of employees in enclosed spaces

  • improve ventilation or ensure ventilation systems are working as they should

  • set up protective screens and provide face coverings, eg face masks or shields

  • put in place rules for managing social spaces, eg one person in a small kitchen at a time (or more, depending on the size of said kitchen space)

  • provide hand sanitisers and surface cleaning wipes

  • promote regular handwashing

  • allow staff to work from home if it is possible for them to do so, or change shift patterns to reduce the number of staff on duty at any given time

  • contribute to the NHS Test and Trace system to ensure that the intended purpose of it can be met.

Employers' roles in the test and trace system

With similar systems in place in Scotland and Wales, the Government announced that England's Test and Trace system is live (from 28 May 2020) a system designed to track down individuals who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

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

  • make shops and other workspaces as safe as possible

  • support staff who are notified by the system and encourage them to self-isolate and co-operate with guidance. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) — currently £95.85 per week — would then 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) if the employer has fewer than 250 employees.

Employers may also be asked by the affected employee to let their colleagues know that they have tested positive and to expect that they may be contacted by NHStracing. If there is more than one case of coronavirus in the workplace, employers should then contact their local health protection team to report the outbreak.

Reported localised outbreaks

Some employers may not yet see the risk of a second wave in the UK at this time, but it is important to note that there have been reports of localised coronavirus outbreaks in several countries around the world including England, Germany and Wales.

As coronavirus cases rise in Leicester, the UK's first full regional lockdown has been introduced in England's East Midlands city; non-essential shops and schools for most pupils are to close for at least two weeks. Meanwhile, a meat processing plant in Wales has found that almost 160 of its employees have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, which has brought into question the working conditions at the plant and production has since been halted.

Meanwhile in Germany, there have been 1000 coronavirus diagnoses, of over 3000 tested staff, linked to an abattoir in the north-western region of the country and all workers at the facility have been asked to quarantine. Outbreaks have also been recorded at meat processing plants across other countries in Europe and US, infecting almost 30,000 workers across the two continents and killing over 100 of them.

The outbreaks have symbolised a possible need for localised lockdowns which means that, even if a national lockdown isn't introduced again, businesses in certain areas could be forced to halt operations once more if cases of coronavirus continue to erupt in isolated areas.

The repercussions of a second wave

In all, a second wave of the virus could spell trouble for employers for the following reasons. Employers may:

  • not be able to reopen for as long as planned because businesses could close once again, and homeworking measures could be re-implemented

  • have to agree furlough terms again with eligible employees

  • be forced to considered alternative options for employees who cannot be furloughed for any reason.

The localised incidents explored above could be a clear indicator as to what could happen if cases spike once again across the UK either due to improper procedures being followed by organisations within any industry or region, or if lockdown and social distancing rules are lifted too quickly as seen in Leicester.

It is still yet to be seen how the next few months will play out, so employers need not worry too much. However, it is advisable for employers to take the measures stipulated in Government guidelines (and other possible measures necessary to suit the employer's specific business) as failure to do so could lead to problems down the line.