As other countries start to gradually release lockdown conditions and the UK government appears to be preparing for a slow relaxation of the rules, employers need to consider the steps that they should take to protect their workforce, says Ashley Harkus, managing partner and head of employment law at Everett Tomlin Lloyd and Pratt solicitors.

While some sectors have been able to continue working through the lockdown using a combination of remote working or workplace policies to attempt to ensure a safe working environment, other sectors expect to be gradually allowed to reopen their businesses. Information is scant at present but larger employer groups have suggested that at least three weeks preparation time is required.

The Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy has recently published guidance on the suggested measures that should be taken to ensure workers safety.

The first step would be to prepare a strategic plan to return to work focusing on the health and safety of the workforce, how building premises should be adapted to minimise risk, whether remote working is still possible, and if not, the steps that should be put in place to ensure social distancing.

Whether policies need to be put in place to prevent contamination between employees and how client or customer contact can be maintained whilst ensuring a safe working environment.

Clearly, employers who, depending on their sector, have experienced of varying degree of business disruption with many having to entirely mothball their businesses will be anxious to be able to resume business activity as soon as possible, although the safety of both their employees and clients or customers has to be paramount.

A failure to plan or implement appropriate policies could lead to an increase in infection rate of the virus jeopardising both the community and potentially leading to a further lockdown but also on an individual level a business has a duty of care to protect them and a breach of that duty which encouraged or permitted staff to work in unsafe conditions could lead to a variety of consequences from civil claims to criminal responsibility.

While this is not an exhaustive list of the steps to be taken as each business will be different, the draft guidance suggests the following:

• Ensure you know how you are going to communicate with your staff so they know what you are going to do and how you expect them to behave

• You should carry out a health and safety risk assessment of your premises. It is unlikely that any premises that are too small to allow social distancing would be deemed as safe

• Consider and record any adaptations that you could make to stay within government guidance. The plan should also deal with whether clients or customers should be allowed in the premises or whether alternative arrangements can be made. Many businesses are able to contact their clients remotely and it is likely to remain the case that face to face contact will be limited until it is safe to do so

• Consider the minimum number of staff required within the office at any one time and consider whether it is possible to continue remote working. You will have to give special consideration to staff who have underlying health conditions or who have been advised to shield. If those staff are currently remote working, it is unlikely to be reasonable to require them to attend at an office or work premises. You may wish to think about flexible working and staggered working hours

• Businesses should consider how their facilities which are normally shared are dealt with. Will the office canteen remain open? Will employees have to provide their own cutlery? Businesses will need to consider whether to introduce a policy which either restricts or prohibits the use of communal facilities

• Where facilities need to be used, for example workplace toilets, it would be necessary to consider increasing cleaning rotas and providing additional hand sanitiser and cleaning products. Businesses will need to consider whether toilets that would normally be available to customers should remain open

• Any plan should risk assess whether personal protective equipment needs to be provided and if so where it will be sourced. That equipment could be fixed screens or personal equipment for example masks.

It is vitally important to check government websites on a regular basis to ensure compliance and to take advice from HR departments or external advisers if in doubt.

• ETLP has offices in Newport and Pontypool.