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A number of coronavirus-related employment changes took effect on 1 August, namely:

  1. Changes to working from home advice

  2. The pausing of shielding guidance

  3. Changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

  4. Further details about the Job Retention Bonus

In this blog we provide a brief summary of each:

1. Changes to working from home advice

On 17 July, the Prime Minister announced that from 1 August the government would be updating its advice on going to work. 

Until now, the government’s official advice has been that people should work from home if they can.  Now, the government is giving employers more “discretion” to decide how their staff can work safely.  In its FAQ document the government acknowledges that this can include continuing to work from home, but emphasises that this is just one way to work safely, and that an alternative is to make workplaces safe by following “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines so that staff can return to work.

Although the government has recently postponed the easing of certain lockdown restrictions due to take effect from 1 August, in its announcement on 31 July, the government confirmed that the change to its work from home guidance is still going ahead.

If employers decide to ask staff to return to the workplace, it is important that they:

  • Follow the government’s updated COVID-19 Secure guidance applicable to their particular type of workplace (office, factory etc), which reflects changes to the rules on working from home. This includes ensuring that everyone makes a reasonable effort to comply with social distancing guidelines (two metres, or one metre with risk mitigation where two metres is not viable).

  • Consult with employees to determine who, from 1 August, can come into the workplace safely, taking account of individual employee’s journeys, childcare responsibilities, protected characteristics and level of risk. The government emphasises that “it is vital employers engage with workers to ensure they feel safe returning to work, and they should not force anyone into an unsafe workplace”.

  • Update their COVID-19 risk assessment to reflect their decision about how and where employees should work, documenting the actions taken to manage the risks of transmission.

For further guidance on the steps employers should take in order to return employees to the workplace as safely as possible, see our previous blogs:

Employers may also find it useful to look at our article Testing the temperature for a return to work, recently published in HRnews, for suggestions on what they should be thinking about when considering whether to introduce coronavirus testing and / or temperature checks for their employees.

It is unclear at this stage whether the government’s change in approach to working from home will result in any significant change in the numbers of employees returning to the workplace, especially given fears of a second spike, as well as the positive response there has been to home working by many employers and employees alike.  If employers do start to return staff to the workplace, it is likely that the most common (and indeed safest) approach will be to do so on a voluntary or optional basis, at least initially.

2. The impact of shielding guidance being paused

During the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic, people who were notified that they were clinically extremely vulnerable were advised to take extra precautions, known as “shielding”. 

As of 1 August, the guidance on shielding has been “paused” and the government is advising that people no longer need to shield. 

From an employment perspective, this now means that the advice for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals is that they should carry on working from home wherever possible, but can go to the workplace as long as it is COVID-19 Secure (as explained above). COVID-secure guidance provides that, where people who were previously shielding cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, enabling them to maintain social distancing guidelines. This may include temporarily allowing them to take up an alternative role or adjusting working patterns.

The government is “urging” employers to take socially responsible decisions, listen to the concerns of staff and come to a practical agreement about their working arrangements. This will be particularly important in relation to clinically extremely vulnerable individuals, many of whom will also be classified as disabled under the Equality Act 2010. For these individuals, employers will therefore be under an additional duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove any substantial disadvantage caused by coronavirus in the workplace. This inevitably means that employers should be wary about appearing to pressurise (or  force) any affected individuals to return to the workplace if they have safety concerns about doing so, and so any conversations should be handled with care.

Employers should also remember that clinically extremely vulnerable individuals may well be advised to shield again if the situation changes and transmission levels increase. It is therefore important to remain as flexible as possible in their arrangements.

3. Changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

The start of August has ushered in two main changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, or furlough scheme:

  • Changes to the level of the grant – for the first time since the furlough scheme began, from 1 August employers will need to start contributing to the cost of the scheme. Although the government will continue to pay 80 per cent of wages (up to a cap of £2,500) in August for the hours an employee is on furlough, employers will be required to pay employer National Insurance Contributions and make pension contributions for those hours. Further tapering will continue in September and October – see here for further information.

  • Redundancy payments for furloughed employees – the government has brought in a new law which ensures that if furloughed employees are made redundant while on furlough, they will receive a statutory redundancy payment based on their normal wages, rather than a reduced furlough rate. The law will also apply to ensure that normal wages are paid in respect of statutory notice payments. For the government’s announcement and more details of the change, see here.

  • As a reminder, the government recently updated its guidance to confirm that employers can continue to claim a furlough grant for furloughed employees who are serving their notice period (whether statutory or contractual). In order to comply with the new law mentioned above, this means employers will need to top up the shortfall between the grant and normal wages for any employee entitled to statutory minimum notice or to contractual notice which is not one week more than statutory minimum notice. For employees with a contractual notice entitlement which is more than this, the position is less clear cut. It would appear that employers will be able to pay the furlough rate of pay during the full notice period of any employees who have contractual notice of a least one week more than their statutory notice entitlement.  However, this will be subject to the terms of any furlough agreement.

4. Further details of the Job Retention Bonus announced

Although technically not something which took effect on 1 August, on 31 July the government did publish a new Policy Paper on the Job Retention Bonus

In fact, the Policy Paper doesn’t add a huge amount to the information we already know about the scheme (for which see our blog here), and the government has now said that detailed guidance will be published in September 2020.

However, as a quick reminder, here are some details about the Job Retention Bonus:

  • The basic premise of the scheme is that employers will receive a one-off bonus of £1,000 for each furloughed employee who is continuously employed until 31 January 2021.

  • We now know from the Policy Paper that this payment will be taxable, so employers must include the whole amount as income when calculating their taxable profits for Corporation Tax or Self-Assessment.

  • Employers will be able to claim for employees who meet the following criteria:

    - A claim was correctly made for the employee under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

    - The employee is continuously employed from the date of the most recent furlough claim made in respect of them until at least 31 January 2021.

    - The employee must be paid an average of at least £520 a month between 1 November 2020 and 31 January 2021 (or £1,560 across the three months). The employee does not need to have been paid £520 in each month, but must have received some earnings each month. Only earnings recorded through HMRC Real Time Information (RTI) can count towards the £520 figure.

    - There must be an up to date RTI record for the employee up to the end of January 2021.

    - The employee must not be serving a contractual or statutory notice period that started before 1 February 2021. This will presumably apply even if it is the employee who serves notice.

  • Employers will be able to claim the Job Retention Bonus from February 2021 via the government’s website.

We will provide a further update on the Job Retention Bonus as and when additional detail is published in September. In the meantime, employers should ensure that their employee records are up-to-date and accurately reported through the RTI reporting system, and that any incorrect furlough claims have been amended and notified to HMRC in accordance with the government’s guidance

If you require further information about anything covered in this blog, please contact Anna BirtwistleAmy Wren, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, August 2020

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