Commentators have long suggested that we may see a second wave of coronavirus (COVID-19) later this year following the initial peak in spring. Whether or not that is the case, employers should be preparing for the possibility in case it becomes a reality.
Will there be a second wave?
Whilst it is impossible to know for certain at this stage, the consensus among experts is that a second wave is very likely. The English government’s announcement that social gatherings of over six people are prohibited from 14 September 2020 is seen by some as recognition that a further spike in cases is anticipated.
It is hard to say what a second wave would look like. Some predictions suggest that the second peak may not be as high as the first, but it may last longer. It could result in more regional lockdown measures in COVID-19 hotspots, such as those seen in Leicester, Lancashire, Aberdeenshire, etc. Alternatively, the government may choose to reintroduce national restrictions.
In terms of timings, most models suggest a rise in cases will coincide with flu season this winter and a time of heightened demand for the NHS.
Getting your workplace ready
If your staff have not yet returned to your workplace, then you will need to make the environment ‘COVID-secure’ in order to meet your health and safety obligations as an employer. If you have already made changes to your workplace and staff are beginning to return to your premises, you will need to conduct regular risk-assessments to ensure that you are taking all reasonable steps to keep your staff safe.
A COVID-secure workplace is likely to have many or all of the following features:
- Good ventilation and circulation of fresh air at an appropriately warm temperature;
- Allowing enough space for staff to practice social distancing. This can be done by spacing workstations 2 metres apart and providing floor markings/signs to help staff to maintain a distance in communal areas;
- Physical barriers where appropriate, e.g. Perspex screens between desks or at customer-facing points;
- Cleaning stations, particularly around communal facilities such as printers and photocopiers;
- Use of PPE where appropriate (e.g. in areas where social distancing is not possible);
- One-way systems at potential traffic points; and
- Sufficient handwashing facilities and hand sanitiser points to allow staff to wash their hands regularly.
Remember that you also owe health and safety responsibilities to employees working from home, so check in with them to ensure that they have everything they need to work safely and comfortably.
Preparing your staff
As this period of uncertainty continues, it will be very important to maintain an open line of communication with staff for several reasons.
It is important to reassure staff that the workplace is ‘COVID-secure’. Ensure that they understand exactly which measures have been taken – if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace, passing that information on may remove the need for co-workers to self-isolate. You should reassure staff that contingency plans are in place for various eventualities, including local lockdown, a second wave and/or a further national lockdown.
Be aware of how your employees are travelling to work – those with higher-risk commutes (e.g. getting the tube through central London at rush hour) or with health-related vulnerabilities may need to be given additional flexibility. If the R rate increases, staff in these categories may need to return to home working or work varied hours to lower the risk posed to them.
The rules on lockdown and quarantine change frequently, and an outbreak can happen in an instant. Therefore, you should ensure you have up-to-date personal contact details for all staff in case you need to contact them in an emergency, e.g. to ask them to stay at home.
It is important to explain to staff what your approach will be if they must self-isolate, particularly where they are unable to work from home, e.g. in terms of their sick pay entitlement. You should also establish a wellbeing plan to deal with any adverse impact on staff mental health, as reinstatement of lockdown would likely be very difficult for many people. You should also consider offering an employee flu vaccination programme to help to protect staff health and boost their confidence.
Throughout this period, it is advisable to monitor the R rate at a local level and nationally to watch for sharp increases or rates above 1. This will allow you to keep up-to-date and respond quickly to any significant changes.
You should ensure your business continuity plan is up-to-date and addresses the potential impacts of a further lockdown. As part of that, you should ensure that you have clear plans in place to cover absent employees, whether because they fall ill or they are ordered to self-isolate due to a change in the quarantine rules or the Test and Trace procedure.
If your staff have returned, or will return, to the workplace, ensure you have a clear containment procedure and enough staff trained to deal with a potential outbreak on your premises. As well as boosting staff confidence that their health and safety is being protected, this will help you to reduce the risk of the virus being spread and the numbers of employees who would have to self-isolate as a result. You could also consider whether, from a cost and practicality perspective, workplace testing is viable.
All employers will necessarily be communicating with staff about the virus and collecting additional data during this time. It is therefore very important to refer to the ICO’s guidance and be clear on how the GDPR allows you to use and store staff data, and particularly special category data such as health information.
If you are in the hospitality, tourism or leisure sectors or provide close-contact services (such as a hair salon), then you have an additional obligation to retain specified information about staff, customers and visitors for a limited period. Ensure you are equipped to do this in a way which complies with the GDPR.