UK’s exit from lockdown: a disunited kingdom?

As of May 13, 2020, the release from lockdown has begun in England and we have the proposals for the phases of return. The United Kingdom is now not only Brexiting, but splitting from within in how it deals with COVID-19 and exits from a draconian lockdown: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland must continue to “Stay at Home,” whereas those in England must merely “Stay Alert.”

Work from home if you can – but go out to work if you can’t

What does this change mean? Workers in England are still encouraged to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace wherever possible. Where workers cannot work from home, however, they are now actively encouraged to return to work. The only exception to this guidance is workplaces such as hospitality, non-essential retail and personal care (beauty and hair), which the Government requires to remain closed.

The Government is urging those who are working outside the home to avoid public transport wherever possible, which will mean more journeys to workplaces are taken on foot, by bike or by car.

Currently schools across the UK remain closed (except to the children of keyworkers), which is placing a great strain on working parents who are forced to juggle a new teaching role while working from home.

Eight Workplace-Specific Health and Safety Guidelines Published

Employers have a duty to assess and manage risks to safety in the workplace. Employers are also required to consult with their employees about their health and safety risk assessments, and it is a criminal offence not to do so.

The Government has published new “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines, which provide eight workplace-type-specific guides on new considerations for health and safety set ups in light of COVID-19. These guides are designed to help employers make adjustments to the workplace to help maintain social distancing. They provide various suggestions from changing shift patterns and rotas to match employees with the same team each time and splitting employees into smaller, contained teams, to seating arrangements in offices becoming back to back rather than face to face.

Face Coverings

The UK’s position on facemasks has been a constant source of discussion throughout the crisis and has recently changed to advise that people should aim to wear a face covering in enclosed spaces, for example on public transport. To avoid a strain on the already challenged supply chains to the national health service, the Government does not advise employers to require employees to wear face masks at work unless they ordinarily wear PPE (although employees should be permitted to do so should they wish).

Small but appreciated changes to lockdown life

People are now able to drive to outdoor open spaces irrespective of the distance and to mix outside with a single member of another household (maintaining social distancing). In addition, in a hugely popular move for sports fans, individual sports have been allowed to resume with golf courses and tennis courts seeing a flood of (hopefully appropriately socially distanced) players. With the science now suggesting that the risk of transmission outdoors is much lower than in confined spaces, the UK’s approach has been to focus on permitting more outdoor activities to allow lockdown to be more sustainable over the longer term.

International arrivals required to self-isolate

The UK is going to introduce measures as soon as possible to reduce the possibility of transmissions being reintroduced from abroad. Travellers into the UK will be required to supply their contact and accommodation information. In addition, those international arrivals not on a shortlist of exemptions (with business travellers potentially treated more favourably) will be required to self-isolate in their accommodation for 14 days on arrival into the UK. Where international travellers are unable to demonstrate where they would self-isolate, they will be required to do so in accommodation arranged by the Government.

Schools, non-essential retail and sporting events

The Government’s road map document focuses on greater freedoms and changes then being achieved by bolstering the UK test and trace capabilities, which have been the subject of some international ridicule and perhaps in some way account for the UK’s particularly significant death toll.

Depending on the UK’s test and trace capabilities and the current alert rating, some or more of the following steps may take place beginning June 1, and organisations are asked to prepare accordingly:

  • A phased return for young school children and those with key exams next school year;
  • Opening non-essential retail (however hospitality and personal care sectors will still be required to remain closed);
  • Permitting cultural and sporting events to take place behind closed doors for broadcast; and
  • Reopening more local public transport in urban areas, subject to strict measures.

There is also contemplation of how some limited social mixing could be allowed between households possibly based on a New Zealand-style model of household “bubbles,” where a single “bubble” is the people you live with and two bubbles being allowed to mix. As well as greater social interaction, this arrangement would allow for shared childcare between households thus easing the strain on working parents.

Hairdressers and hospitality

Phase 3, which will happen no earlier than July 4, will involve opening some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons – people of Instagram rejoice), hospitality, public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas). Again, such businesses are required to meet the COVID-19 Secure guidelines.

Given the difficulties of reopening these higher-risk type businesses and public places, the Government is planning to carefully phase and pilot the reopenings to test their ability to adopt the new COVID-19 Secure guidelines. It also plans to learn from other countries around the world that are reopening similar establishments ahead of it. No doubt we will see further guidance for these businesses once they are permitted to open.

Certain uncertainty

The Government’s proposals for its road map out of lockdown have been widely criticised as being unclear. However, the progression of this crisis and managing it is full of unknowns, with development of a vaccine or treatment possible within a few months – or perhaps never. What will happen is anyone’s guess. We will continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.