The Government has released details of its plans for the two million people currently shielding from coronavirus (COVID-19) in England, to gradually return to normal life.

The first changes came into effect on Monday 6 July, when those shielding were permitted to gather in groups of up to six people outdoors, and also form a support bubble with another household. Further changes are then due to come into effect on 1 August, when those who are shielding and unable to work from home can return to work as long as certain protective measures are in place. The entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay for the purposes of shielding due to coronavirus will end at the same time.

The Government acknowledges staff may feel anxious about returning to work once the guidance has eased. Emphasis has been placed on the importance of employers complying with guidance to make the workplace ‘COVID secure’ before shielding employees return to work. In reality, this may not be enough to allay the concerns of staff who until recently have been advised not to leave the house at all, and so communication between employer and employee will be key to agreeing return to work arrangements.

The Government’s advice is for concerned staff to speak to employers to understand what specific measures have been put in place to secure the workplace, and also to discuss any further adjustments that might be required in their personal situation. Where working from home is a possibility, it remains the case that staff should be permitted to work from home even after the 1 August date has passed.

Thinking Ahead

Employers now have an opportunity, over the next month, to take proactive steps to understand the individual circumstances of staff who are shielding, and who cannot work from home. Where staff feel uncomfortable about returning to work even once protective measures and adjustments have been explained, employers should adopt a reasonable and supportive approach.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to agree a period of unpaid leave if staff do not wish to return to work. Where employers wish to explore unpaid leave, care should be taken not to position such leave as a sanction or penalty for non-attendance. Otherwise, eligible staff can continue to be furloughed under the new flexible furlough scheme between 1 July and the scheme end date of 31 October 2020.

For specialist advice on shielding employees returning to work, please contact Jessica Scott-Dye in VWV’s Employment Law team on 07799 901 428.