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There were three panellists for today’s discussion: the CBI’s own Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director; Kirsty Ayre, a Partner at Irwin Mitchell and a specialist in employment law; and John Simpson, Head of the Emergency Response Department at Public Health England. As the chair, Ceri Thomas from Tortoise Media, said, “this is John’s moment” – so we were very grateful to have both him and Kirsty joining us.
The subject of the discussion was “Operating Safely” – which is to say, how to do business safely in the time of coronavirus – although we also alighted on some other areas. Here are the key takeaways:
- Progress with the government’s main schemes
- Safety through communication
- The advice from Public Health England (PHE)
- Personal protective equipment (PPE): The priorities
- PPE: The next steps.
Progress from government
Yesterday was, in Matthew’s words, “a big go-live day”. The online portal for the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), through which businesses can claim money from the government, went live yesterday. So did the CBILS+ policy for businesses that are too large for the main Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) but too small for the Bank of England’s corporate debt offering.
All of the early signs from these launches are, as Matthew explained, good. The JRS portal is standing up to high levels of demand – according to the government, there were 140,000 applications before 4pm yesterday – and the first payments are expected to be made within the next 6 working days, just in time for end-of-month payroll. Likewise, there are “no horror stories” from CBILS+ so far.
In addition, the government also launched a new “support finder” tool to help businesses to discover the right financial support for them. Matthew described this as “another really good development”.
In fact, Matthew suggested that we may now be entering a new phase – one in which “most of the bits of the jigsaw” are now in place for the government’s financial support package. Of course, the CBI is still pushing for improvements, particularly to the main CBILS, as we discussed in yesterday’s webinar. But, from Friday’s announcement that the JRS will be extended to the end of June to yesterday’s launch of CBILS+, significant and rapid progress has already been made.
Safety through communication
Matthew went on to mention the importance of the government guidance that has been released for businesses in recent weeks. “It’s terrific that we’ve now got detailed, practical steers for companies in a dozen different sectors.” These sorts of steers will be crucial for other businesses who are thinking about reopening – and about how to – in the coming weeks and months, not least because they “build confidence” among employees. “Employee engagement around the guidance makes such a big difference.”
Kirsty emphasised this point by saying that, for companies coming out of lockdown, the crucial ingredient is “communication, communication, communication” – with employees and with trade unions. “The more you can talk to them, and give them the opportunity to ask questions, the more effective any change programme is likely to be.”
She also suggested that it might be worthwhile for businesses to have updated risk assessments performed, with a particular emphasis on the risk of contracting C-19 in the workplace. These assessments can go a long way to reassuring returning employees, as well as suppliers and customers.
The advice from PHE
Having John in the webinar gave us an opportunity to quiz him about PHE’s thinking. Although he understandably wouldn’t confirm particular timeframes – because the data is not sufficient yet – he did warn that the current two-metre social distancing guidelines are not “something that is going to change quickly”. He added: “Businesses should be looking at this continuing for the next ‘X’ months.” Apparently, the research shows that social distancing “seems to be the measure that is reducing infection rates and therefore reducing illnesses and mortality”.
When it comes to workplace cleaning, John said that the current evidence is that the virus survives on “most hard surfaces” for about 48 hours, and “on most softer surfaces it won’t survive for anywhere nearly as long as that”. So the current guidance – that the virus lingers for 72 hours – is on the safe side, and businesses should abide by it.
As for the efficacy of facemasks, John pointed to the existing guidance: health and social care workers should be wearing surgical masks and, in some cases, FFP3 respirator masks. Otherwise, facemasks are not currently officially recommended for the general population – although he did add that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is meeting later today and will consider this very point.
And then the big question: what about testing and the possibility of a vaccine? John said that the rollout of testing continues, and will soon be expanded to essential workers outside of the health and social care sectors – although he did admit that the scientific world is still struggling to find a method of antibody testing that is “definite enough”, in part because the coronavirus “doesn’t produce a strong antibody response”.
The same problem will hinder the path to a vaccine, although John added that the World Health Organisation’s estimate of one being found within a year to 18 months is “a reasonable timeframe”.
PPE: The priorities
John emphasised that it is “very important to protect the supply of PPE to health and social care staff who actually need it”.
But we also know that PPE will be crucial for businesses returning to work.
Matthew explained that there is no conflict between these priorities. “Absolutely, the priority is to get that equipment to health and social care workers,” he said – not least because, when the restart does take place, businesses won’t want to claim equipment for themselves “if there’s some sort of moral choice… they’ll want to know that they are not taking it away from health and social care workers”.
PPE: Next steps
Of course, the answer to the PPE situation is to massively increase the supply. The CBI has already seen lots of businesses step up to help achieve this – including Burberry and Barbour, who are now making facemasks and gowns, and Nissan, who have adapted their production lines in Sunderland to make visors for NHS workers. We are also encouraged, as Matthew explained, by the recent appointment of Lord Deighton as the government’s PPR tsar: “He has a fantastic track record of delivery, including around the Olympics.”
But the CBI is still looking to achieve more, in three particular ways. First, keeping businesses as informed as possible about how they can help. Second, bringing businesses together so that they can collaborate on sourcing and producing PPE. Third, collecting feedback from the business community, which we then feed to the government.
As always, if you can help in any way with this effort, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key questions we answered:
- Can you give us a run down again on the focus and aims of the latest Govt. guidance?
- Health & Safety first: Throughout the crisis, employers’ priority – whether been able to stay open or had to shut doors temporarily — been to protect employees’ health and keep organisations going.
- Recent valuable updates to UK Govt guidance (which focuses on businesses in England), provide greater detail on a range of practices, businesses can introduce to operate safely and reassure employees that all necessary steps are being taken.
- Crucially, this includes one of the CBI’s biggest asks, sector-specific guidance, for manufacturers, logistic and transport companies, outdoor businesses, processing firms and others.
- These scenarios give substantive, practical steps, such as increasing the frequency of your cleaning procedures, not allowing staff to congregate at break-times, and keeping same groups of people working together, rather than mixing staff members across different shifts to mitigate infection risk.
- Just this week, B&Q have announced that they’re trialling reopening 14 of their stores across the UK, having seen how other essential sectors have supported social distancing measures.
- Also helps those companies starting to plan for when immediate crisis has passed, and lockdown slowly lifted.
- Most importantly, it can give employees confidence that — when they go to work — their health is protected; and they won’t be risking the health of the rest of their family at home.
- To John, what have we learned about the transmissibility of this virus and what are the key things employers need to understand about what we are up against?
- The primary thing we have learned is the importance of social distancing. the evidence demonstrates that social distancing is the most effective measure we can take to reduce the infection and mortality rates of this disease.
- I imagine the 2-metre distancing protocol will continue unless there is very convincing research that causes us to re-examine that recommendation.
- This may have to be kept in place for a long time.
- We are learning things all the time about this new virus. In the interim, it would be prudent for businesses to work on the assumption that this 2-metre protocol will not change for the time being.
- On what employers should do to reduce transmission in their business, Public Health England developed comprehensive guidance on a sector by sector basis which I would recommend businesses consider.
- Testing was also rolled out further to other essential workers yesterday, which is very helpful for the food industry and will continue to be rolled out as capacity increases of the next few weeks.
- To John, how do you rate the chances of antibody tests coming through in the short term?
- Likely to be tests that can be used for population screening fairly soon. The issue is having an antibody test that can assess whether people been have been positive previously. This test doesn’t exist anywhere in the world at the moment.
- Lots of tests are being validated as we speak.
- Always a concern with the Coronavirus that it resembles the common cold so the chances of antibodies being effective over the long term has to be assessed carefully.
- This organism has an ability not to produce a good antibody response, so creating a vaccine is problematic.
- The WHO projection of us waiting a year to 18 months before a vaccine is created is very accurate.
- To Kirsty, do you think employers will be judged on the measures they put in place to protect their employees coming back to work?
- The legislation underpinning this issue has not changed. Health and safety law and employment law remains the same. Therefore, employers still have obligations to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workers.
- They should follow the guidance on the Health and Safety Executive website. If employers do this, it is unlikely they will be scrutinised on whether they kept their workforce safe or not.
- Employers should regularly check the advice that is available.
- Employers may even consider screenshotting the advice they follow. Therefore, you have a time log of the health and safety advice you followed at the time of the advice available.
- To John, what is the PHE definitive advice on the use and grade of face masks?
- The answer is on their guidance online.
- Workers on health and social care should be wearing surgical masks and, for certain procedures, be wearing FSP3 respirators.
- Face masks are not recommended for the general population.
- To Kirsty, I am a small employer who is able to operate safely according to HSE guidance, but my workforce is nervous, and I am coming under pressure from outside groups not to open. What is your advice? And how should I communicate with my workforce?
- If you believe you can operate safely, you need to communicate to employees why you think that is the case, outlining the measures you put in place to ensure social distancing in the workplace is adhered to.
- If workers remained concerned, give them the opportunity to make suggestions and ask questions on how you can improve their safety.
- You could also think about doing an updated risk assessment done to address the risk of Covid-19 at your workplace.
- Regarding the external pressure, in some ways that is harder to deal with but how you communicate with your customers, suppliers, and what you put on your website is key. You need to explain why you are doing what you choose to do and why you think it is safe.
- If you do choose to conduct an extra risk assessment, publicise it on your website to allay concerns.
- What about employees who are worried to go back into work for reasons outside of their employers control? Such as their commute to work, which may involve boarding a crowded bus or tube carriage.
- Employment law grants protection not people who won’t come into work but only if they have a reasonable belief that they are exposed to a serious and imminent danger.
- Covid-19 is a serious and imminent danger. But we do not know if we are more likely to catch it at work or outside of work.
- It is reasonable, in the absence of definitive evidence, for an employer to tell their employees that they expect them to come into work once the lockdown has been lifted.
- On testing, would it be legal or not for an employer to oblige an employee to have a test before coming to work?
- It is reasonable for an employer to ask an employee to undergo a test. Employees are expected to adhere to reasonable managerial requests.
- It is a medical procedure. The processing of information about the individual’s Covid-19 status will amount to the processing of sensitive personal data. If you get individuals who point-blank refuse to undergo testing, then you have to tread carefully regarding whether you choose to go down a disciplinary process.
- To Kirsty, do employers you work with feel they have been given enough consistent information to decide whether they should be open or closed?
- I have not had any employers express that concern to me. The majority of employers I have spoken to are solely focused on preserving their workforces jobs.
- The greater concern is around how the furlough scheme is going to operate and what happens at the end of the scheme at the end of June.
- Now that these critical support measures are in place and are beginning to flow, that is the priority focus for businesses at the moment.
- When we start to turn out sights beyond the survival period, we are realising that social distancing will be with us for a while. When we start to gradually re-open, companies will turn to focusing on what considerations they need to address to ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees.
- To John, is it true that BAME staff are at greater risk in the workplace?
- There has been a lot in the media about this issue. There is a lot of work going on looking at the whole population.
- There is a slightly increased rate of infection in the BAME community. Whether this is due to any form of susceptibility or whether people with BAME tend to live in areas more affected by the virus and have higher rates anyway, is being worked out.
- You should see more on this coming out on the next week as the data is analysed.
- This is an illness that is far more dangerous for those over the age of 70, so following the guidelines to protect them is crucial.
- To Kirsty, would you expect what we are living through now to lead to a substantial new body of legal claims made as we emerge out of this?
- I anticipate we will be kept busy for a while dealing with restructurings and redundancies arising out of the economic downturn of this virus.
- I am hoping we see positive changes regarding how we work out of this.
- We have demonstrated that working from home is a real possibility across multiple sectors.
- This could change the way in which we work for the positive in the long term.