Government in discussions about social distancing at work

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The government is in discussions with organisations about how social distancing requirements could be relaxed in different work settings as the economy gradually reopens.

As part of its review into social distancing guidance, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is consulting with businesses around how they can bring employees back into offices en masse in a safe manner.

This includes how and when the “1m-plus” rule, Covid-secure measures, and the “work from home if you can” guidance can be lifted.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “As part of the Social Distancing Review, discussions are taking place with businesses to see how social distancing requirements could be relaxed in different settings.

“All workplaces should continue to follow Covid-secure guidance to minimise the risk of transmission. This does not include the wearing of face masks where social distancing can be adhered to.”

The review is expected to be concluded ahead of step four of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, when all restrictions are set to be lifted – currently expected to be 21 June.

Some organisations are concerned about the costs that ongoing, or intermittent, social distancing and Covid-secure guidance might impose on businesses.

Tamzen Isacsson, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, was quoted in the FT saying: “If social distancing in offices was to become a regular annual requirement this could prove to be complicated and expensive for many smaller businesses who don’t have the flexibility to increase or decrease office space commitments every six months.”

One person invited to the BEIS’s call with business leaders said: “If you can go to the pub, and you can go inside the pub, why can’t you go to the office?”, while others were not in favour of face masks and plastic screens in office environments.

Stephen Moore, head of employment law at law firm Ashfords, commented: “At present, office workers should still be working from home where possible until 21 June 2021, at which point the guidance will be reviewed and the government hopes to remove limits on social contact, which could lead to a gradual return to the office.

“As part of the planning, we are already seeing a number of businesses commit to more flexible and remote working and it’s likely that this will continue, with some employees working a couple of days a week at home. Office spaces may have to develop to facilitate this. Employees may feel apprehensive towards returning to the office, so employers should engage with their staff and communicate the steps taken to ensure their safety at work.”

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