Employers to be free to abandon face masks and social distancing in England

Message to work from home where possible to be dropped on 19 July along with other Covid restrictions

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Last modified on Fri 9 Jul 2021 12.26 EDT

Face masks and social distancing will be dropped in most workplaces in England, under new guidance for employers being planned by the government.

The message to employees to work from home where possible is set to be abandoned by Boris Johnson on 19 July, alongside the lifting of almost all other coronavirus restrictions.

A raft of measures designed to hinder the spread of coronavirus among colleagues were introduced by ministers last spring, including physical distancing, one-way systems and the provision of handwashing facilities.

During the pandemic, the government has produced 14 documents, advising employers on how to ensure safe working in all kinds of workplaces, from factories and close contact settings such as hairdressers, to hospitality venues and laboratories.

It is understood the existing guides will be reduced and incorporated into a small number of documents in the coming days, which will provide new advice for employers across all sectors of the economy.

As a result, businesses and organisations will be given more discretion over how to handle safe working arrangements for their staff while inside their premises, and will be advised to continue running their own risk assessments.

Many decisions concerning face coverings and distancing will be left up to employers, while some of the most specific guidance banning the sharing of pens, and on how many people should travel inside a lift, is expected to be scrapped.

Even though the government opted not to make mask-wearing mandatory inside offices in its earlier guidance, there are fears among companies and organisations that they will have to make some difficult decisions over how to keep their workers safe.

Business groups and trade unions are calling for the new government document to provide clear advice.

Companies should be allowed to take decisions based on their own circumstances, and should work with staff to find the best solutions, said Roger Barker, the director of policy at the business group the Institute of Directors.

“It is vital that the government’s new guidance provides business leaders with the information necessary to weigh up the pros and cons of specific Covid security policies, such as those relating to face masks, social distancing and ventilation,” Barker said.

He added that businesses remain concerned about how their employees arrive at their workplace, which is outside organisations’ control.

“The government needs to play a role in rebuilding trust in public transport and at least recommending that rail companies, for example, continue to require the use of masks,” he said.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the trade union body the TUC, has criticised government for not consulting unions on its new workplace guidance. She urged ministers to rethink their plans.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to safety at work as restrictions go,” O’Grady said.

“Replacing proper guidance with vague exhortations to employers to do the right thing will result in confusion – and rising infections. This amounts to the government washing its hands of its responsibility to ensure workplace safety.”

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