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17 July 2020

UK prime minister encourages cautious return to office work as CMS is latest to unveil opening plans

UK lockdown rules eased as Boris Johnson seeks to revive struggling city centres

By Ben Rigby

Prime Minister Boris Johnson: "We are going to give employers more discretion." 360b; Shutterstock

The UK government has announced plans for businesses in England to begin a phased return to offices, lifting further lockdown restrictions from the start of August. 

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said businesses, including law firms, would have more discretion to bring staff back to their offices, provided it was safe to do so.

Johnson said: “Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely."

He stressed that employees could continue to work from home, as “one way of working safely, which has worked for many employers and employees".  But he added that employers should be encouraging people to get back to work "where that is right for that employee".

Official UK government advice has been that employers and employees should 'work from home if you can' since March; however, there has been pressure to encourage more workers to return to city centres to help businesses that rely on their custom.

Responding, Law Society of England & Wales president Simon Davis said firms should follow health and safety guidelines and carry out suitable risk assessments. He said: “Firms can then put in place measures to minimise risk and, if possible, review their policies before opening their doors.”

Davis added: “For as long as Covid-19 remains a virus that is easily spread within our population, while also causing significant medical problems to a large group of people, working practices will need to be flexible. The individual circumstances of employees, including their health and caring responsibilities, need to be considered when deciding whether or not they should return to the office. As we have said all along, safety comes first.”

Pia Sanchez, a senior consultant at specialist employment firm CM Murray, said employers may not welcome the apparent ambiguity between today's announcement and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s advice that people should continue to work from home.

She added: “In big cities and densely populated areas, the announcement is likely to create anxiety for those who rely on public transport to get to work. The more people are asked to return to work, the busier services will be.”

Meanwhile, top 10 UK law firm CMS announced a phased, voluntary return to its offices in London, Manchester and Sheffield, implementing a rota system for staff who wished to do so, enabling staff to alternate their attendance in the office on a weekly basis.

CMS said it had taken additional measures, ranging from extra hand sanitisation stations, deep cleaning, and clean-desk policies, to safeguard partners and staff, while also conducting client meetings where possible. 

For those attending the office, social distancing measures, such as one-way systems on entry, lift access, measures safeguarding the client floor, and personal hygiene practices would be followed stringently.

A spokesperson added: “We will continue to follow government guidelines and enable working from home as the first option.”

Stuart Armstrong, a specialist health and safety solicitor at York-based boutique firm S V Armstrong, said firms should consider making the workplace ‘COVID secure’ with appropriate distancing measures (ideally two metres).

Firms should talk to workers, providing information, and consider arrangements for working at home, while protecting vulnerable workers and clients, or shift work patterns.

Dentons was the first major UK law firm to open up its offices for selected staff ‘for mental health, isolation or other wellbeing reasons’ in mid-June, since when several firms have announced the measures they are taking to allow some staff to return, including Linklaters and Allen & Overy.

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