Lockdown easing delayed - what does this mean for HR?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that the scrapping of coronavirus lockdown measures – which were set to take place on June 21, 2021 – has been delayed by four weeks in England. In a televised national address last night (June 14, 2021), it was announced that the last step in the Government’s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown is now set to take place from July 19, 2021. This final step, according to the Mirror, should have seen the removal of most remaining restrictions in England. Johnson said that the spread of the Delta variant resulted in them being “faced [with] a very difficult choice”.
What does this mean for HR?
With the news that lockdown easing has been delayed, HR will be thinking about its role within this. From the furlough scheme to employee wellbeing and health and safety, HR Grapevine spoke to several experts to find out more.
Staff wellbeing has always been a top priority for HR. As such, it is crucial that workers who are struggling have access to appropriate levels of support. Shelly Asquith, TUC’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Officer told HR Grapevine: “The delay might feel like a setback for some workers who want to get back to their workplaces and see their colleagues. But, with cases rising, everyone who can work from home should continue to do so.” Asquith went on to explain that employers and HR have a responsibility to protect the health of workers – whether this is physical or mental health.
With data published in Close Brothers’ Expecting the unexpected: a spotlight on preparing for a crisis report, finding that 51% of staff have experienced an increase in worries relating to mental health due to the pandemic, this should continue to be a top priority for HR. She added: “Workers who are finding the pandemic challenging for their mental health can talk to their union reps and line managers about accessing support, and the best ways of tackling causes of work-related stress. "When the time is right for the Government to remove restrictions, all workers must know their workplaces have been thoroughly risk assessed for [COVID-19]. “The Government must consult unions and employers on updated safety guidance for all types of workplace ahead of the final unlocking,” the TUC’s health, safety and wellbeing officer added.
Health and safety
Karen Holden, CEO of A City Law Firm told HR Grapevine that there isn’t anything that will really change in a practical sense from today onwards for businesses and its staff “as we maintain the same restrictions and provisions”. She explained: “The same risk assessments, masks and social distancing is required. Many were not anticipating a full workforce return on June 21 and its dependant on also vaccination role out.” Another consideration for employers, according to the legal expert, is that cashflow could become a “real issue”. This is because “…some businesses may have recalled staff from furlough especially those that work in a nightclub in anticipation of re-opening so will need to potentially reissue a further furlough agreement”.
In addition to this, with reports suggesting that the UK Government won't be adjusting the furlough winddown timeline to address this extension, this could be a problem for some employers. As of July 1, 2021, furlough contributions will go down to 70%, with this reducing even further to 60% between August and September. “So, businesses will need to find more money to cover its staff salaries, whilst potentially not operating fully or at all,” Holden added. “This is where communication, budget and replanning is going to be essential. We strongly recommend HR give as much notice and clarity to staff as possible. “HR may now face additional redundancies, that are now inevitable, or questions from staff due to return, but now asked to remain on furlough,” the legal expert continued.
Elsewhere, the TUC has urged ministers to extend the furlough scheme in line with the restrictions. Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, said that last night’s announcement means that many staff and employers will need greater help – particularly those in the hospitality or arts sectors. O’Grady added: “Ministers must step up and provide targeted support for these industries. We can't afford for more companies to go the wall, taking good jobs with them. “Government must delay asking businesses to make contributions to the furlough scheme in July and extend the scheme as long as needed.”
Biggest HR challenges & overcoming them
Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy at the CIPD, told HR Grapevine that while the extension of the current restrictions was anticipated, it will “still be a blow”, for sectors including hospitality and tourism. He said: “Trade bodies in both sectors have warned that businesses could go under because of this latest extension. “It’s likely that many employers in the worst affected sectors which were planning to bring workers back, will now keep them furloughed or re-furlough them. “Workers themselves could be worried about their job security and frustrated that their return to work has been delayed.” When mitigating these challenges, the CIPD expert suggested several things including keeping in touch with furloughed staff, signposting them to support services if needed and checking in on wellbeing. “They should also use the opportunity to provide any additional training for employees including those furloughed, to make productive use of the time available. “Employers can also use this extra time by engaging with staff to consider the best way of optimising future home and hybrid working arrangements for both individuals and the business, as well as enhancing other forms of flexible working,” Willmott concluded.
Source: HR Grapevine