As Boris Johnson says his government is wondering whether it will need to go further than the ‘rule of six’ to control the spread of coronavirus in England, it’s vital to grasp what exactly the new rule is which the prime minister is considering adding to, and worth spelling out precisely what it means for the UK’s contractor workforce, writes Laura Darnley and Heena Kapadi of Brabners LLP.
What is the rule of six?
Specifically, the new rule is about prohibiting social gatherings of more than six people and it came into effect on Monday September 14th 2020. It means that any social gathering of more than six people, whether indoors or outdoors, is against the law. And it means anyone flouting the rule will subject to a fine of £100, doubling for further breaches up to a maximum of £3,200.
But there are a number of exemptions to the rule of six, including workplaces and workplace gatherings. So despite the new ‘rule of six,’ employees and workers can continue to attend the workplace and meet their colleagues — even when there are more than six people present.
Just because you can…
However, just because employers can arrange employee meetings where more than six staff are involved without breaching this particular rule, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should.
In fact, whatever arrangements are put in place employers still need to make sure they have complied with best practice to secure their staff’s health and safety by providing a COVID-19-secure workplace and consulting with their employees and workers on how they can operate safely.
For all workers, including contractors, the question seems to arise – ‘Will it therefore be possible to organise face-to-face business meetings?’ Again — as long as the workplace is covid-secure, organisations will be able to conduct face-to-face business meetings. Of course, what constitutes ‘covid-secure’ varies depending on the type of work. For individuals like contractor and others who work in offices, contact centres or similarly indoor work environments, the following priority actions must be taken:
1. Complete a COVID-19 risk assessment
As an employer, the workplace owner must protect people from harm. This includes taking reasonable steps to protect staff from coronavirus. Carrying out a risk assessment will allow the organisation to think about who could be at risk and identify any situations (such as attending face-to-face business meetings), that might cause transmission of the virus. This risk assessment should be shared and discussed with all workers.
2. Clean more often (and banish the buffet)
Coronavirus can transfer from people to surfaces and can be passed on to others who touch the same surfaces. The workplace, especially surfaces that are being touched a lot, should therefore be kept clean and staff, on-site consultants as well as all visitors should be asked to sanitise and wash their hands frequently. This practice should be adopted when organising business meetings, and hand sanitiser should be readily available for use.
While the trays of sandwiches and laid out array of treats were commonplace during business meetings before the pandemic, businesses may want to think about whether such food-related gatherings are a good idea.
One option may be to eliminate this element of the meeting completely and avoid any risk whatsoever. However, subject to any risk assessment carried out, businesses may be comfortable with, for example, ordering individual lunches, as this would minimise contact and help avoid the spread of any infection.
3. Asking visitors to wear face coverings
While there are a number of exemptions in respect of this, the wearing of face coverings is a legal requirement and especially important if visitors are likely to be around people they do not normally meet.
4. Ensuring everyone is social distancing
Notably, there has been no relaxation of the social distancing rules since their introduction. The government guidance asks businesses to consider how many people can be in each space while remaining at a social distance.
The current guidance also encourages the use of booking systems for rooms. In a business meeting, sufficient spacing, as well as a consideration of the duration of a meeting, will be crucial. In practice, this may well be the deciding factor in limiting the number of attendees at a meeting.
5. Increasing ventilation
This can be done by keeping doors and windows open where possible and running ventilation systems at all time. Again, this should be in place for face-to-face meetings given the number of people in one room.
6. Taking part in NHS Test and Trace
This is a key part of the country’s ongoing COVID-19 response and can be done by keeping a record of all staff and contractors for 21 days.
7. Turning away people with coronavirus symptoms
Many companies are keen to get back to ‘business as usual,’ and face-to-face team meetings may be one of the many steps to take to achieve this goal. However, as set out above, the employer (or end-user of workers’ services) must protect people from harm. If a staff member, or someone in their household, or a visitor has symptoms, then they should not be attending the workplace and should be self-isolating.
In summary, notwithstanding the now in-force ‘rule of six,’ employees can attend the workplace and any workplace gatherings — such as business meetings — so long as a workplace is COVID-19 secure.
In spite of this, however, and especially in light of recent increases in infection rates and local lockdowns, it is worth considering whether face-to-face meetings or meetings with large numbers of participants are really necessary.
The government guidance supports this by encouraging calls or video conferences wherever possible in order to avoid in-person meetings with external contacts or colleagues outside someone’s immediate team.
In addition, employers and workplaces should listen and remain sensitive to the concerns of any staff or contractors who are anxious about returning to work or raise health and safety concerns to avoid the risk of potential legal claims.