Massive changes are coming for workers in Devon and Cornwall from Saturday 1 August.
While for months, for many the office has been in kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms or the cupboard due to the threat of coronavirus, from Saturday some things will change.
That’s because employers can for the first time ask people to come into the office even if it’s not absolutely necessary for them to be there.
It’s set to bring a wave of relief to many cooped up at home as well as the workers in stricken city-centre pubs and eateries while for others, there might be concerns about juggling childcare, health issues and worries about catching the coronavirus.
The UK Government has refused to guarantee a legal right to work from home- meaning the decision on where you work lies with a conversation between you and your employer.
What is the current guidance?
The current guidance says if you can work from home, then you should work from home, with those that can’t work from home advised to go into their workplace if possible.
In return for those going to a workplace, your employer should make the workplace “COVID Secure”- meaning all measures have been taken to reduce the risk of transmission.
COVID secure means a series of things but can include arranging for extra cleaning, social distancing people at desks by seating them further apart, or in some cases standing apart, putting up screens and floor or floor markings. Detailed guidance for different types of workplaces can be found here.
The exception to this is if you’re currently “shielding” due to being extremely clinically vulnerable to the coronavirus. If you’re shielding you should still work from home or if your employer won’t pay you- claim Statutory Sick Pay.
What are the new changes from August 1?
In short- employers will decide who comes into the workplace, rather than the Government telling everyone to work from home if they can do so.
Announcing the changes, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We are going to give employers more discretion.
“That could mean of course continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees.
“Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following COVID Secure guidelines.”
Also ending on August 1 is shielding, meaning the people doing so will be asked to go back to their workplace at the same time.
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Why are the changes happening?
It’s primarily driven by a fall in the rates of coronavirus infection in addition to growing fears that the local economies will grind to a halt if things didn’t change.
Sandwich shops, cafes, pubs, and restaurants are at risk of bankruptcy if workers- a vital source of trade are kept away completely and their closure would risk making people redundant.
Although there have been local outbreaks across the country, coronavirus infection rates have also been falling.
It’s also said that the Test and Trace system in place will help to detect any outbreaks in the workplace.
The change, however, has proven controversial. Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Patrick Vallance warned on July 16: “”We are still at a time when distancing measures are important.
“Of the various distancing measures, working from home remains a perfectly good option for many companies because it is easy to do.
“A number of companies do not think it is detrimental to productivity, and in that situation, I see absolutely no reason to change it.”
Can people go to work using public transport?
People are asked to take alternative means to get to work if they can – walking, cycling, or even driving.
However, the guidance around public transport has changed from “only use if essential” to “travel safely”- with face coverings mandatory for many who use public transport. In addition, social distancing means on services there might be less capacity so it’s advised to book in advance. Public transport operators are also asking people to avoid travelling at the busiest times.
Can people still work from home?
It’s important to note that the Government has said people can go back to their workplace, not ordering everyone to go back.
It’s likely due to the coronavirus prevention measure employers have put in place, that not everyone will go back to the office due to the limited capacity thanks to social distancing, meaning some staff are still likely to work from home.
Ultimately, the decision rests with employers with the changes meaning there’s no government rule preventing you from returning to the workplace.
Can employers force people to go back to work if they don’t want to?
While no one can physically force someone to go back to a workplace, but employers are able to take disciplinary action against those who refuse to do so.
As long as the workplace is safe then employers can ask people to return.
In a lot of employment contracts, a defined place of work is embedded in the contract.
There’s also no legal right to demand to work from home. There’s a legal right to request flexible working, but your employer only has to engage with the request properly and are not obliged to grant it.
The Government says firms should “consult closely with their employees” on what they decide.
But Acas says: “If someone refuses to attend work without a valid reason, it could result in disciplinary action.”
Can employers force people to go back to work if it’s unsafe?
If it’s not Covid-secure then you shouldn’t be asked back to the workplace.
However, critics say there is no easy redress for workers who believe bosses are breaking the rules.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman urged firms to take “socially responsible” decisions, adding: “We’re not prescribing what businesses should do, provided that they make the environment safe.”
Rogue firms can be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, or workers could bring a complaint or go to arbitration service Acas.
And employment lawyer Matt Gingell suggested such issues could end up at an employment tribunal.
These can all be lengthy processes that take many months to resolve.
He said: “If an employee refuses to return to the workplace due to the employee reasonably believing imminent and serious danger and is then dismissed for that reason the employee could, depending on the circumstances, have a claim for unfair dismissal.
“The requirement that the employee has to believe that there is an imminent and serious danger, does limit the right.”
Can people who are pregnant or have asthma be asked back to work?
If you are pregnant or have asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or liver disease, you are classed as “clinically vulnerable”.
This means you are not sick enough to be shielding, but that you are at a higher risk from Covid-19.
If you fall into this category, you can still go back to work where possible.
However, you should “take extra care in observing social distancing”.
If you can work from home, your employer should help you to do so. If you can’t work from home, you should be offered the “safest available on-site roles, enabling you to stay 2 metres away from others.”
This could mean being placed in a different role.
If you can’t stay two metres from others, your employer should assess “whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.”
If unacceptable risks cannot be removed, pregnant women are entitled to be suspended on full pay.
A full list of conditions for the “clinically vulnerable” group is here.
Can people who have children be forced back to work?
There is no extra childcare help that came with the “back to work” order – despite it starting just as the summer holidays got underway.
Parents of the youngest children can get up to 30 hours a week of free childcare, and schools are being encouraged to run catch-up schemes.
Parents are also entitled to up to four weeks per year of parental leave for each child – but this is unpaid. It is also capped at 18 weeks for each child between birth and their 18th birthday.
Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer has said the Prime Minister is putting parents in an “impossible position”.
He said: “Despite ordering millions of parents back to the office, the Prime Minister has refused to provide any extra help for families, penalising parents by putting them in an impossible position.
“Parents got a back-to-work notice just as the summer holidays began. But they got no support for structured activities, no summer catch-up schemes, and no support for a childcare sector on its knees.”
Can people who have been shielding be asked back to the workplace?
Shielding instructions for those who are extremely clinically vulnerable ends on August 1.
There may be exceptions to this if there is a local outbreak in your area. Please check with your local council.
If you have been shielding, the Government advises that you can return to work from August 1 – if you can’t work from home.
However, you should adopt strict social distancing, and “remain cautious”.
Will Furlough end on August 1?
The furlough will not end on August 1 and continues right up to October 31.
However, it will start winding down, with firms having to contribute some of the costs of their workers from August 1.
That means firms are likely to take more staff off furlough or – in the worst-case scenario – make them redundant.
This is a conversation you should have with your employer.
No new staff can be put on furlough – but if you were furloughed previously, you can be “re-furloughed”. Again, this is a conversation to have with your boss.