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New Year but the same challenges to overcome in getting back to work


Mon 4 January, 2021


The start of a new year has understandably been dominated  by talk of coronavirus (Covid-19) and it is expected to continue to impact on employment in 2021.

The highly contagious and deadly virus caused widespread devastation and disruption to all aspects of our lives in 2020.

It had a huge impact on employment. We saw large-scale job losses and the way in which many of us now work has changed dramatically.

We may have to wait a while to discover if the introduction of vaccines and tiered lockdown restrictions are successful in the sterling battle against Covid-19.

Last year hundreds of thousands of employees were made redundant. The Office for National Statistics said redundancies rose to 370,000 in the three months to October, the most since records began in 1992 (1)

The government furlough scheme, extended until the end of March, is said to have protected millions of other jobs.

At the peak of the pandemic 8.9 million employees were furloughed, that number had fallen to 2.4 million by the end of October (2)

For many employees how they are expected to work and perform their required duties will continue to be from the comfort of  their own home.

With most of England either by covered tier 3 or 4 restrictions, the government advice for those under those restrictions is that ‘…everyone who can work effectively from home should do so’ (3)

Speculation is that much of England’s remaining population living under tier 3 restrictions could be moved into tier 4 by the end of the week as the country waits for the mass rollout of vaccines.

Tier 4 includes tight social restrictions and the closure of non-essential retail . The main difference between tier 4 and the March 2020 lockdown is that the government is trying to keep schools open.

The start of the school term has seen a problem arise, which many employers in different sectors are likely to have to deal with this year.

What do you do if an employee, who cannot work from home, is concerned that their workplace is not safe and fears for their health and safety?

The National Education Union (NEU), a leading teaching union, has advised primary school staff not to return to classrooms due to unsafe conditions amid the pandemic.

Most primary schools in England are expected to still open in the first week of January, while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on 11 January and others returning a week later.

The NEU, which represents teachers and support staff, has called for delays to the reopening of schools across the country (4)

Many employers are likely to find themselves in a similar position, in having to deal with concerns from staff who have genuine fears about having to return to the workplace.

Businesses should already have measures in place such as social distancing, one-way systems and frequent cleaning regimes to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid-19.

If that is still not enough to reassure an anxious employee then any concerns and reasonable approaches should be discussed to ensure the worker feels safe to return.

The government has published extensive guidance for employers to ensure that workplaces are Covid-19 secure, and it includes completing a risk assessment (5)

An employee should be allowed to make reasonable suggestions regarding other measures that can be implemented to protect them and the workforce.

Any such suggestions should be listened to and considered. It is essential to have an open dialogue, which can help to reassure an employee that their safety is being taken seriously.

Where an employee unreasonably refuses to attend work they can of course face disciplinary action.

However, it is advisable to try everything possible to address and resolve any safety concerns an employee may have in relation to returning to the workplace.


1. Rise in redundancies [Internet] [cited 4.1.2021]

2. 8.9 milllion furloughed [Internet] [cited 4.1.2021]

3. Working from home [Internet] [cited 4.1.2021]

4. Calls to delay opening schools [Internet] [cited 4.1.2021]

5. Guidance for employers [Internet] [cited 4.1.2021]


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