Preparing for stricter Covid-19 lockdowns: A guide for employers

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As England’s three-tier restrictions come into force and the government faces increasing pressure to ‘circuit break’ the rising number of coronavirus infections, we take a look at how employers should prepare for the impact of stricter lockdowns.

Coronavirus infections are at their highest rate since June. On Monday a further 17,234 coronavirus cases were recorded in the UK, while there have been 143 more deaths. We are undoubtedly in a second wave.

But while we all experienced the impact of full lockdown in the spring, we face a different picture as we head into winter. The government appears determined not to have a return to a full lockdown. Its intention is to protect both lives and livelihoods.

“There are those who say we should go back into a full national lockdown of indefinite duration, closing schools and businesses, telling people again to stay at home as we did in March, once again shuttering our lives and our society. I do not believe that would be the right course,” said Boris Johnson on Monday.

Instead, he proposed a new three-tier system that puts local areas into medium, high or very high risk brackets. The tiers apply in England but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to align broadly with the same categories.

However, already this week, the Northern Ireland Assembly has announced it is closing schools for two weeks and that for four weeks there will be new stricter restrictions on hospitality venues, off-licences, hairdressers and gyms.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for a short lockdown in England of two to three weeks to bring coronavirus under control saying that we need to prevent sleepwalking into a bleak winter.

So what should HR professionals be doing to prepare? Personnel Today answers your questions…

What is the three-tier system?

Depending on what area of England you’re in, you should be on medium, high or very high alert. You can find out your local Covid alert level by checking your postcode here or by referring to the NHS Covid-19 app. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate rules.

Medium areas should follow the rule of six both indoors and outdoors and there a 10pm curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants.

High dictates that there is no mixing of households indoors. The rule of six applies outdoors and pubs and restaurants have to shut at 10pm.

Very High means no household mixing indoors or outdoors in hospitality venues or private gardens. The rule of six applies in outdoor public spaces. Pubs and bars not serving meals must be closed, and there will be restrictions travelling into or out of the area – but not for work. Furthermore, additional measures may be implemented locally.

What does this mean for employers?

Clearly, it depends which sector you’re operating in but generally speaking you should work from home “if you can”.

Aside from sector-specific restrictions, in England there isn’t actually any difference in how the three tiers affect going to work. For Medium, High and Very High alert areas the advice is as follows.

Office workers who can work effectively from home should do so. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home, they should. Public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work. Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work.

There is no limit to the group size when you are meeting or gathering for work purposes, but workplaces should be set up to meet the Covid-secure guidelines.

Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk. Those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable can go to work as long as the workplace is Covid secure, but should carry on working from home wherever possible.

People living inside and outside even Very High alert level areas can continue to travel in and out of the areas for work.

Can we still furlough staff?

As things stand at the time of publication, you can only furlough staff on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) if they have been furloughed before. The minimum period employers can claim for is three weeks and since the CJRS closes on 31 October, you have already missed the boat if you want to furlough through the CJRS.

From 1 November 2020 until 31 March 2021, the CJRS gives way for the government’s new Job Support Scheme (JSS). Full details have yet to be published, but if you’re in a Very High area you may be able to essentially “furlough” employees through the JSS. See below.

While you can no longer furlough staff using the CJRS, if you can keep them employed until 31 January, you will qualify for the Job Retention Scheme Bonus of £1000 per employee. More below.

What is the Job Support Scheme?

On 24 September, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, unveiled the UK’s version of the Germany’s Kurzarbeit, a short-time work scheme. Far less generous than the CJRS, the Job Support Scheme allows employers to receive money from the government to top up the pay of employees who do not have enough work to do.

The idea is that employers will be supported to offer staff shorter working hours in “viable jobs”, rather than make employees redundant.

Organisations will pay staff their full rate for the hours they do work – which must be at least 33% of their contracted hours to qualify for the support – with the government covering part of the wages for the hours they are not working.

For the hours not worked, the employer will pay one-third of an employees’ usual wages, while the government will pay a further third.

It means an employee working 33% of their normal hours would receive 77% of their pay, with 55% paid by the employer and 22% paid by the government. The level of grant will be based on employees’ usual salary, capped at £697.92 per month.

The JSS will be available to all SMEs but larger businesses will be required to demonstrate that their business has been adversely affected by Covid-19, and the government expects that large employers will not be making capital distributions, such as dividends, while using the scheme.

The employee cannot be on notice of redundancy.

What if my local Covid alert level means my business can’t open?

On 9 October Sunak “expanded” the Job Support Scheme and in a way he brought back “furlough”. The rules are different to the CJRS though.

Full guidance has yet to be published by HM Treasury but what we know so far is that firms whose premises are legally required to shut for some period over winter as part of local or national restrictions will receive grants to pay the wages of staff who cannot work. The government will support eligible businesses by paying two thirds of each employees’ salary (or 67%), up to a maximum of £2,100 a month.

Unlike for the non-expanded JSS, employers will not be required to contribute towards wages and only asked to cover national insurance and pension contributions. The Treasury estimates that around half of potential claims are likely not to incur employer national insurance contributions or auto-enrolment pension contributions and so face no employer contribution.

What is the furlough bonus and how do we apply?

As part of its plan to curb redundancies, the government announced that an employer that has used furlough who can keep employees in employment between November 2020 and January 2021, will receive a £1000 bonus for each member of staff.

Employers can claim the bonus if they furloughed employees and made an eligible claim for them through the CJRS. The employee must have been eligible for the CJRS grant for the employer to be allowed the bonus.

Employees who are continuously employed from 1 November 2020 to 31 January 2021 qualify, but they cannot be on notice of redundancy – including retirement. Employers must pay the employee they are claiming in relation to at least £1560 over the three-month period.

Businesses have to claim the bonus between 15 February and 31 March 2021, employers do not have to pay this money to their employee.

Before employers can claim the bonus, they need to have reported all payments made to their employee between 6 November 2020 and 5 February 2021 to HMRC through Full Payment Submissions via Real Time Information (RTI).

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