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  • Overview

    As of Monday 19 July, there is no longer a legal requirement for people in England to wear a face covering in indoor public spaces unless medically exempt. Instead, the Government’s latest advice leaves it to individual businesses to implement their own policies on masks, social distancing and check-ins to aid track and trace.

    The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy guidelines for businesses on how to reduce the spread of Covid-19 state that while people will not be legally obliged to wear a face mask, businesses should “encourage and recommend” visitors and staff to do so.

    This guidance for employers covers construction work, offices, factories, science labs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality settings, events and attractions, hotels and other guest accommodation, shops and “close contact services”.

    It also states that “the government expects and recommends a gradual return to the workplace over the summer” and employers should “discuss the timing and phasing of a return to the workplace with your workers”.

    It also removes the rules around social distancing, although it does recommend that employers should provide adequate ventilation, clean workplaces more often and recommend staff and customers use hand sanitiser.

    Mixed messages

    There has been a range of criticism of the Government guidance on mask wearing in particular. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said the guidance was a “recipe for chaos and rising infections”.

    She has called on the government to consult with unions and employers about the guidance issued to avoid “widespread confusion”.

    Shevaun Haviland, Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce agrees and has also said that more detail is needed to avoid confusion. “Without clear guidance for businesses around the new proposals, there could be real uncertainty on how they should operate going forward and what they should be doing to keep staff and their customers safe.”

    Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party has said “They are recklessly opening up the country without keeping essential measures in place. Labour is calling for masks to stay, work from home if you can, proper ventilation in buildings, and to fix self-isolation payments. The scientists say these measures will bring down transmission.”

    Industry sectors’ response

    Various industry heads have come out in the run up to the 19 July to give their views on how they will operate going forward and how they will interpret the Government guidance.

    Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Sainburys’, Primark, Waterstones and Boots the Chemist are just some of the big retailers who have stated they will still request both employees and visitors to their stores wear masks. Marks and Spencer was in the news on Sunday for introducing shorter opening hours due to some staff testing positive and others having to self-isolate. Morrisons say that they have the situation under control. When it comes to public transport, the mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands have strongly recommended that passengers continue to wear masks on buses, trams and trains.

    The London Mayor Sadiq Khan has the power to make masks compulsory on the London transport network and has said that masks will be a condition of carriage for the Tube, bus, tram, DLR, Overground and TfL Rail.

    What are the legal ramifications?

    It is clear that there is some concern from businesses about how to implement and enforce policies on mask wearing going forward. While there is no legal requirement to mandate that employees or clients and consumers wear masks, employers do have a legal requirement to provide a safe working environment for their staff.

    Employers face a choice between controlling work place transmission risks, through social distancing or homeworking or relying mostly on vaccines and trace and test. It is a difficult to call make. Those employers who have managed to keep infections low with the former are less likely to abandon these measures and resort to the latter, without attracting challenges from worried staff, who might resort to refusing to come to work or leaving their workplace in apprehension or fear of an immediate risk to their health and welfare.

    As the numbers of 2nd vaccinations climb from 36 million, it will be interesting to see how things pan out over the next 2.5 months, as the furlough scheme winds down at the end of September.

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