Coronavirus: return to work guidance

The Government has said that those who cannot work from home should return to work if their workplace is open. They have published some guidance for employers, which we take a look at here.

Construction workers in hard hats and face masks


The guidance for employers states that those who can work from home, should work from home. It also states, however that “all workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open”.

It gives examples of these groups of workers, including those in food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, scientific research in labs “and so on”. It also states “The only exceptions to this are those workplaces such as hospitality and non-essential retail” which will remain closed.

The guidance states that employers should carry out Covid-19 risk assessments of their workplaces to ensure that it is possible to maintain social distancing between workers, that cleaning processes are reinforced and start times are staggered to lower the number of people who are in the workplace at one any time. Employers have also been urged to create one-way walk-throughs, open more entrances and exits and change seating layouts in break-rooms. The TUC welcomed the guidance as a step forward, but other unions are worried it hands too much power to employers and that there will be pressure on employees to return before proper safety measures are in place.

Other safety measures for office and lab workers include the use of screens, enforcement of fixed team working to reduce contact numbers, a ban on the use of hot desks and  back-to-back working rather than people facing each other. For shop workers, changing rooms should be cleaned between each visitor, payments should be contactless, cafes should be closed and handling of merchandise should be limited.

In construction arrival and departure times should be staggered as well as break times and site access should be restricted. Support staff should be encouraged to work from home. In factories, plants and warehouses, screens and barriers should be used if possible to separate work spaces, production lines should be reviewed to space people apart and packed lunches should be provided where possible.

No work should be conducted in any households with Covid-19 symptoms or where individuals are shielding, unless it is to fix an urgent problem. For drivers or couriers, drop-offs should be contactless and toilet breaks may need to be booked in. For those selling takeaway meals, the guidance recommends laminated menus, restrictions on kitchen access, cleaning of delivery vehicles between shifts, on-site washing of uniforms and getting customers to wait in their cars, if possible.

Safe travel

The guidance says people should continue to avoid public transport “wherever possible” and maintain social distancing by staggering journey times or choosing less quieter routes. The Government is also advising that people should aim to wear a cloth face-covering – not a mask – in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible. This is not, however, compulsory.

Chief executive at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, Peter Cheese, said: “The return to work is a massive undertaking for employers and is likely to prove much harder than the original lockdown as there are so many variables. As the ongoing health threat continues, no employer should be rushing to get their people back to work until they can meet three conditions: is it essential, is it safe and is it mutually agreed with the workforce.

“Even with those measures in place the return to work must still be gradual so that social distancing can be maintained. It is important that organisations can learn what works practically to be able to provide guidance and reassurance before increasing numbers of their people in the workplaces.”

Key challenges

In its 50-page document, Our plan to rebuild: the UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, the Government outlines key challenges ahead, including the need for widespread compliance, the impact of winter flu which could confuse diagnosis, the difficulties in detecting the virus and a lack of full information about the virus.

It outlines the different effects of the coronavirus – from the health impact to the economic and social ones – and states that the guidance is “informed by the science” and based on considerations of fairness, proportionality and transparency, among other things.

Other changes outlined in the guidance include:

  • Being able to go out as many times in a day as you like
  • Being able to meet up with one person from outside your household in an outdoor setting, subject to correct social distancing
  • Being able to drive anywhere, except to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have different rules on going out

Employment rights

Included in the guidance is an FAQ on common questions related to COVID-19. There are two questions about employment rights.

One is for workers scared to go to work. The Government advises that employers and staff discuss and agree working arrangements, that employers make all efforts to enable people to work from home if they can and if they can’t that they take “clear, practical steps to help protect workers and create safe places to work, such as shift working or staggering processes”. To identify the precautions needed to manage risk, employers should discuss the workplace risk assessment with employees to identify the practical ways of managing those risks. If employees are still worried that the employer is not taking sufficient safety measures, for instance, on social distancing they can report this to their local authority or the Health and Safety Executive.

The other question is around whether employees can be fired if they can’t work from home and don’t go to work. The guidance says: “We urge employers to take socially responsible decisions and listen to the concerns of their staff. Employers and employees should come to a pragmatic agreement about their working arrangements.” Employees can contact ACAS about their rights in these situations.

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