Welsh employers have legal obligation to enforce social distancing

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Workplaces in Wales must ensure staff adhere to a two-metre social distancing rule which was put in place by the country’s government yesterday (7 April).

The new rule applies to any workplace, including homes where work is being undertaken and outdoor spaces. This includes those providing essential services, such as supermarkets, hospitals and petrol stations.

It means that employers in Wales now have a legal obligation to take “all reasonable measures” to ensure their employees and any other people on their premises follow the rule.

The Welsh government said the most effective way of doing this is to enable staff to work from home for some or all of the time, but if this is not possible then employers need to take “reasonable measures” to enforce physical distancing.

First minister Mark Drakeford said: “We have asked people to stay at home, to save lives and protect the NHS. These temporary restrictions on gatherings and the movement of people in Wales are an important part of our efforts to help protect the public from the spread of coronavirus.

“These new regulations will ensure workers are safe in the workplace, by ensuring the social distancing measures we have put in place also apply in all people’s places of work.”

Both the police and local authorities have the power to enforce the regulations. Those judged to be the “responsible person” in the workplace will receive a fixed penalty of £60 for non-compliance, or may be charged with a criminal offence and ultimately convicted for repeated breaches.

Examples of measures the government considers satisfactory include:

  • reducing the number of people working on a premises at any one time, so they are able to spread out
  • increasing space between staff – for example, on a production line
  • considering rest space provision and whether breaks could be staggered
  • altering workers’ tasks to reduce contact
  • staggering shifts to minimise people on site and congestion during shift changes.

Its guidance says there is no “hard and fast rule” of what constitutes a reasonable measure, as this can vary across functions or organisations. However, employers should consider whether the cost of the measures they wish to take are proportional to the number of people whose risk is reduced by it; whether the measures are practical for the work being undertaken; whether the measures do not compromise the health and safety of others; and the nature and capacity of the workplace, for example, whether staff are working with vulnerable people.

“There will be circumstances in which it is not possible to take reasonable measures,”  the guidance notes. “But employers will be expected to undertake an assessment before concluding there are no reasonable measures that they can take, and there are no blanket exemptions from this legislation.”

Examples of where the government understands enforcement of the rule will be difficult all of the time are:

  • in a hospital setting, where staff are caring for patients
  • the provision of personal services, including in the home
  • tasks that require two or more people to undertake them safely, including heavy lifting or carrying dangerous chemicals
  • education and childcare settings – especially where young children cannot understand the concept of physical distancing and where the appropriate support may require closer contact
  • where close contact is required between workers and service users
  • where workers are required to travel together
  • where dual working is to ensure safety
  • working in confined spaces, for example repairing infrastructure for utilities.
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