With the prospect of Covid-19 restrictions being completely relaxed in England on 19th July, polls have revealed increasing public alarm as new cases rise to more than 42,000 in one day. This is the highest number of infections in a 24-hour period since 15th January 2021.
The final step of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s exit from pandemic restrictions has been dubbed “Freedom Day” in the media. However, with just days to go before all the safety measures are removed, 50% of the British public want the date to be delayed again, according to a poll carried out by Opinium for the Observer newspaper.
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Will Freedom Day be UK-wide?
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are exercising more caution. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has ruled fully-vaccinated individuals won’t have to self-isolate if they come into contact with an infected person. However, there are no plans to lift safety restrictions in Scotland until 9th August, when face coverings will still be compulsory.
The Welsh Cabinet announced Wales would move into the lowest level one alert on 17th July, but has ruled out a “wholesale abandonment” of the Covid safety measures. Ministers hope to relax the majority of restrictions on 7th August.
A review of the safety measures in Northern Ireland on 8th July saw the rules on outdoor gatherings relaxed. Now, up to 15 people from five different households can congregate in private gardens. Live music is also returning in pubs and venues, although at “ambient levels”. To date, no “Freedom Day” has been announced for Northern Ireland.
Does the public want Freedom Day?
Less than one-third of Brits (31%) now believe “Freedom Day” should go ahead as planned, as cases of coronavirus continue to soar. The World Health Organisation has also issued warnings about the dangers of the government’s plans.
The Observer poll revealed 73% of respondents wanted mask wearing on public transport to remain compulsory after 19th July. In addition, 65% of people have called for masks in supermarkets, 46% want masks in restaurants and 43% feel they should be mandatory in pubs.
Senior NHS officials have also voiced concerns over the negative impact of scrapping mask-wearing in hospitals. They say it will put more staff at risk of Covid and will worsen the growing backlog of delayed surgeries. Currently, the waiting list for regular operations stands at more than five million people.
Trade unions representing shop workers have lobbied the government about the threat to employee health after the mask-wearing rule is scrapped. There are concerns retail workers will be put at a particularly high risk due to their face-to-face contact with customers.
What does this mean for businesses?
There are growing fears that the move to relax all restrictions will cause more confusion, as an increasing number of businesses and organisations say they will impose their own rules for customers, regardless of the official line.
Several restaurants and pub chains, including City Pub Group and Rare Restaurants, have revealed they are planning to make customers wear masks and practice social distancing even after 19th July. Businesses are completely within their rights to impose their own rules, out of line with the government’s thinking, should they choose to do so.
Businesses are preparing to protect their employees; amid accusations the government is letting people down in failing to offer protection from the spread of coronavirus. For many companies, it will be “business as normal” after 19th July – when “normal” means keeping the rules on mask-wearing, hand sanitiser and social distancing in place.
Many people are already voicing fears of a new lockdown in the winter, when virus cases traditionally rise. Although the PM has declared “Freedom Day” will be irreversible, this seems to be the case only from a practical perspective.
In truth, he has been careful when answering questions on the possibility of renewed restrictions further down the line. He said the government would “monitor the data” and do “everything possible” to avoid the restrictions coming in again.
Should all businesses try to provide a safer experience?
The controversy surrounding Freedom Day begs the question of whether all businesses should try to provide a safer experience for staff and customers, despite the government rules being removed. Consequently, things might change at a slower rate than you would imagine for businesses.
Regardless of whether the Covid restrictions are all removed, this doesn’t change employers’ basic obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act. By law, they must take all reasonable, practical steps to reduce any risks to their employees’ health and safety. They must also safeguard visitors to their premises and the general public.
The announcement of Freedom Day doesn’t mean an end to workplace precautions around masks, Covid testing, good hygiene, screens, social distancing and other safety measures. These are things for employers to consider. It is up to the individual business whether they follow the government guidance, or not, from 19th July.
Employees will still have a basic right to stay away from the workplace if they believe it poses a genuine risk to their health and safety, under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
How can employers help anxious staff?
The decision to scrap restrictions has heightened anxieties for people who are afraid of catching Covid, according to mental health charities and therapists. As an employer, you may wish to take the return-to-normality process relatively slowly to accommodate their fears.
In a surprise move, Whitehall’s Department for Business released new guidance for employers on 14th July, suggesting they should consider setting up mental health hotlines for anxious employees when they return to work.
The document also suggests masks should be worn in offices, Perspex screens should separate desks and “fixed teams” of staff should be created to reduce the number of people employees come into contact with.
The eleventh hour information document has angered business groups, who have labelled the advice “confusing”. There are concerns some companies may delay bringing staff back as a result. Some trade unions have pledged to sue businesses who force staff to go back to the workplace against their will unless their safety is guaranteed.
Employers are said to be considering how to proceed amid fears of lawsuits should they make a mistake that leads to an employee contracting Covid.
Currently, more than 700 employees at Nissan’s Sunderland plant are reportedly self-isolating, while workers across many industries are increasingly being “pinged” by the NHS Covid app, according to the Financial Times.
The Institute of Directors said businesses had been awaiting 19th July “with bated breath”. However, the “mixed messages” from the government have now “dampened the enthusiasm”. The guidance released on 14th July has further fuelled the confusion.
The warning suggests there are underlying concerns in Whitehall that an immediate return to pre-pandemic working conditions could result in a surge in problems after people have worked remotely for more than a year.
While the homeworking arrangements forced on businesses by the lockdown will no longer be required by law, some employers may be gradually phasing out the arrangement, rather than suddenly having a full staff in the workplace on 19th July.
The onus will be on the employer to manage the working arrangements, for the first time since March 2020, when the first lockdown began. Freedom Day will have no impact, in law, on whether any flexible working arrangements should continue or not.
The official line is there will be “strengthened guidance” to allow people to make their own “informed decisions”. If businesses require employees to wear a mask in certain parts of the building, or in particular roles, to help reduce the risk of infection, nothing that Boris Johnson has said will prevent them from taking the necessary steps.
The Confederation of British Industry says it is up to firms to make “informed decisions” on protecting health in the workplace, such as the ongoing use of Covid-secure measures like masks in crowded places.
Should social distancing remain?
Retail and other businesses who wish to continue to limit the number of people in the building at any given time to continue social distancing can benefit from the Covid-19 Queue Management System.
The “traffic light system” will automatically integrate with automatic doors to control the number of people who enter the building, without staff having to manually intervene. The green light signals you can enter, while the red light warns the premises are already at capacity.
The system has been invaluable during the pandemic and looks set to continue in popularity beyond “Freedom Day” among individual businesses wishing to carry on with their own safety precautions.
Installing automatic doors for business premises with a high footfall is a good way of helping to stop the spread of bacteria.
If you want to help keep your customers safe and our economy moving; contact Automatic Access for details of our products and services.