On Monday 22 February, the Prime Minister set out the four steps his government plans to take to lift Covid restrictions in England.
Despite the success of the vaccination programme, Mr Johnson made it clear that coronavirus was still a "substantial threat" and that easing lockdown restrictions will increase the numbers of cases, hospitalisations and deaths. In other words, unlike other countries aiming for 'zero Covid', our approach is to live with it and accept that there will be surges in infection rates within some communities despite the success of the vaccination programme.
The detail is contained in a 68 page document: Covid-19 response - Spring 2021. What does it contain for employers?
Restrictions will start to be eased across the whole of England at the same time. From Monday 8 March all schools and colleges can open to all students for face to face learning. That's step one. The next three steps have provisional dates and could be pushed back if there is a surge in hospitalisations, new variants of the disease emerge, the vaccine deployment programme suffers a set back or evidence emerges that the vaccines are less effective against new variants.
However, if it all goes to plan, the timetable anticipates further easing of restrictions on Monday 29 March, Monday 12 April, Monday 17 May and Monday 21 June which is when all restrictions will be lifted.
Working from home
The advice to work from home if you can will apply until 21 June at the earliest. Shortly before that date, the government will complete a review of social distancing measures which will help inform the guidance. But, it's difficult to see how (or indeed why) the government would legislate to keep people working from home if it's removed all other rules on social contact other than in the context of local lockdowns.
The government's hasn't yet updated its guidance on shielding. However, formal shielding measures only apply across the whole of England during the period of national lockdown and the Prime Minister said that the clinically extremely vulnerable people won't have to shield from the end of March. * Since publishing this, the government has updated its guidance which confirms that formal shielding measures will apply across the whole of England until at least 31 March 2021.
You can read our advice on shielding here.
Every adult aged 50 and above as well as those at most clinical risk should have been given the option to have one dose of the vaccination by mid-April. And, the government anticipates that every adult over the age of 18 will be able to be vaccinated by the end of July. It will of course take longer for everyone who wants a vaccine to receive the recommended two doses, but it's now clear that one vaccine dose gives high protection from severe Covid. And there's more evidence emerging that vaccination reduces viral transmission.
However, even after everyone who wants a vaccination has received one, the government may have to impose measures because a) some people won't have been vaccinated and b) the vaccine isn't effective for everyone. It's possible that measures may mean that social distancing and wearing masks in the workplace will have to continue beyond the end of June.
The government also appears to be considering some form of Covid status certification which could be used 'confirm in different settings that people have a lower risk of transmitting Covid-19 to others' which may assist employers in assessing specific risks in their workplaces.
If you are thinking about operating a 'no jab, no job' policy, please take a look at our advice as it's a complex issue.
The earliest date people can leave their homes to go on holiday within the UK is 12 April, and there'll be a review before we know when we can go abroad for a holiday. If your holiday year is January to December, or you've got staff who've carried over holiday from 2020, you might want to think about encouraging them to take some holiday now to avoid a surge in requests over the summer holidays.
Don't forget, you can serve notice to compel staff to take holiday at a time of your choosing. You can read our advice on holidays, furlough and accrual here.
'Covid secure' health and safety requirements
Businesses must also continue to take necessary precautions as restrictions ease and can only open if they are Covid secure. The Government has said that it will update its guidance on working safely during coronavirus to provide further advice on how you can improve fresh air flow in indoor workplaces and introduce regular testing to reduce risk.
Lateral flow tests
Qualifying businesses will be able to obtain free lateral flow tests until the end of June (rather than the end of March).
You can read our advice on lateral flow testing here.
Support for business
The furlough scheme is due to end on 30 April 2021*. By that date non-essential retail, beauty parlours, hairdressers, pubs and restaurants with outdoor facilities will (hopefully) be able to open. However, that still excludes a number of other significant businesses such as cinemas, hotels, theatres and sporting venues.
*Since publishing this, the government has announced that the furough scheme will continue until 30 September 2021. It will remain open to all employers and qualifying employees. Employees will continue to receive up to 80% of their salary for hours not worked but employers will have to contribute 10% towards the grant from July and 20% in August and September.
The government will announce what further support it will offer on Wednesday 3 March 'Budget day'.* It's said that the 'approach will reflect the steps set out in the roadmap: as restrictions ease and the economy is gradually and safely reopened, the Government will carefully tailor the level of support to individuals and businesses to reflect the changing circumstances'.
The emphasis seems to be on helping people to find 'new jobs, acquire new skills or start new businesses' rather than offering financial support.
*You can read our analysis of the employment implications of the budgethere.
Our Coronavirus updates
We're working hard to keep you up to date with legal developments around Coronavirus. We've set up a portal which includes lots of helpful articles and advice to help you.
If you have a query, that we haven't answered, please contact us.