Covid imposed rules which have been in place at pubs bars and restaurants for more than a year have been lifted today, in what the government has called ‘Freedom Day’.
Since being allowed to reopen last summer following the first lockdown, the hospitality industry has been forced to operate under harsh laws including only allowing table service, and the wearing of face masks when not seated.
From today that changes after health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed earlier this month that step four of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown could be introduced.
Mr Javid, the Health Secretary, said July 19 did not mark the “end of the road” but instead would be “start of a new phase of continued caution” as the country begins to accept life with the virus. He added that there was “no perfect time” for the restrictions to ease.
Mr Javid said that businesses without much in the way of ventilation would be “supported and encouraged” to make sure they have proof of vaccination prior to entry, and in some cases, a negative lateral flow test.
From today, nightclubs can reopen, all legal constraints on the numbers of people meeting indoors and outdoors have been removed, as does the requirement for table service in venues and the government is no longer instructing people to work from home. Scanning with QR codes will no longer be required, and face masks will no longer be a legal requirement, though many locations are expected to encourage them in some capacity, and the Government is keen that they do.
Nightclubs and live events will be allowed to return, and wedding venues will receive guidance on the numbers permitted.
Current advice on vaccine passports is that they will not be obligatory for businesses. However, in separate guidance the government said it “reserves the right” to compel venues to require certification “at a later date if necessary”.
Pub group JD Wetherspoon has announced it will return to the measures agreed between local authorities, health authorities, licensing authorities and other parties when pubs reopened in England following the first lockdown in July 2020. The group said facemasks would be made available for employees and customers to wear “at their discretion”.
Chairman Tim Martin said the measures were “a sensible backstop for the industry and strike a fair balance between health, employment and the economy”.
He added: “It is hoped that arbitrary and capricious government rules, which have been a regular feature in recent months, such as the requirement for substantial meals, curfews and table service, which have no scientific provenance, can be avoided in future. These sorts of rules damage the economy, are extraordinarily difficult for pub staff to implement and are invariably regarded by customers as absurd.”
Some hospitality businesses in England have said they will continue to ask guests and staff to wear masks indoors.
Jonathan Mumby, employment law expert at Howes Percival explained, “Communication is absolutely key. If you, as an employer, wish for employees, customers and visitors to wear a face covering after 19 July, it’s important that you communicate that policy to everyone as soon as possible.
“There’s not a one-size fits all approach, organisations will need to consider the impacts of requiring, or not requiring, face masks in their workplace. They will need to review their coronavirus risk assessment and engage with staff. They will also need to consider how to police or enforce the policy should it not be adhered to.
“Although the legal restrictions are due to end, the risk remains that staff or customers could still become infected with the virus especially as we are currently seeing a dramatic surge in the current rates of infection.”
Six tips from Howes Percival on considering and developing a face mask policy post ‘Freedom Day’
- Review your coronavirus risk assessment – consider what amendments (if any) are needed. Keep talking to staff and maintain buy-in for any action plan.
- Should there be exceptions to your policy? Consider if any staff are unable to wear a facemask, due to an underlying health condition. Organisations should remain aware of potential claims for disability discrimination, ensuring that sufficient processes are in place.
- Reasonable adjustments – Should the decision be made to require face masks, organisations should ensure sufficient procedures are in place to afford employees with disabilities reasonable adjustments to protect against potential claims for disability discrimination. Employers should engage with staff to explain the rules.
Remain aware of potential claims of harassment or victimisation in circumstances where some employees with a protected characteristic are unable to wear face coverings.
- The economic impact of continuing restrictions – Although the health and safety of staff and clients will be a priority, businesses will need to factor in the economic impact of continuing restrictions. Would requiring masks encourage or discourage potential shoppers or visitors? Will those tired of masks favour premises where one is not required. At the other end of the spectrum will safety conscious customers or shoppers choose to avoid businesses that are not requiring face coverings?
Equally, businesses need to be aware of the risks posed by an outbreak of the virus at their place of work. Offices have had to close as a result of the workforce being required to self-isolate. Business should ensure that the measures in place remain effective in protecting staff and customers in respect of the virus.
- “The safe side”? – On 12 July 2021, the Prime Minister’s office stated, “the government expects and recommends that face coverings are worn in crowded and enclosed spaces, such as public transport, when mixing with people you don’t normally meet.” Tesco and many of the key food retailers have announced that they will continue to require shoppers to wear face masks to “be on the safe side”.
- Remain up to date with government guidance – Set review dates, where you may consider removing the requirement, for example, if cases fall.