On the anniversary of the first UK lockdown, Emma Cousins, associate at York-based employment law firm, Torque Law, looks back at how Covid-19 has impacted businesses and employees and what it might mean for the future.

York Press:

Emma Cousins, Torque Law associate

The pandemic has forced employers and employees to face many new challenges and concepts.

A year ago, the word 'furlough was relatively unknown; now it’s synonymous with providing a critical safety net to businesses and security to many jobs.

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended to September 2021 and, although from July employers will be required to pay a percentage of furlough payments, it’s still likely to be a lifeline to many businesses and jobs in the coming months.

In consequence of the ‘stay at home’ message, many businesses and employees have had to quickly adapt to remote working.

Balancing home-schooling with remote working has been one of the toughest challenges for many working parents and carers; however, flexible working arrangements have also brought benefits for both businesses and their staff.

One year on, many employers are now willing to embrace more agile working arrangements as part of their longer-term strategy.

To achieve that goal, it’s vital that employers think carefully about the agile working arrangement that they want to foster and promote, and consider any necessary changes to staff contracts, policies and procedures.

With restrictions now easing, businesses are considering how they can safely welcome staff back to work.

Lateral flow tests are now accessible to businesses of all sizes; whilst testing staff isn’t mandatory nor is it explicitly encouraged, many employers are choosing to do so.

It is key that employers conduct testing responsibly and with their data protection obligations in mind.

Another consideration is whether businesses should require employees to be vaccinated prior to returning to the workplace.

Whilst mandatory vaccination would be justifiable in some sectors, for example the care sector, in most cases implementing such a policy could risk claims for discrimination and constructive unfair dismissal.

In our experience, the majority of employers are simply encouraging staff to take up the vaccine by allowing paid time off to attend appointments and promoting the individual and wider benefits of doing so.

Just recently the Employment Tribunal found that the dismissal of an employee who refused to wear a mask at work was fair.

The case was fact-specific; it won’t always be reasonable to discipline or dismiss an employee who refuses to wear PPE but this won’t be the last case of its kind.

Employers that require staff to wear PPE at work should ensure that their policies are up to date, including clear guidance as to how rule-breaking with regards to PPE may amount to gross misconduct.

Despite the challenges everyone has undoubtedly faced over the last year, it feels like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We certainly can’t wait to be able to get back to the office as a team and to meet our clients face-to-face once more.

For advice and guidance on all employment law issues, get in touch torquelaw.co.uk