COVID-19: Practical Guidance on Managing a Return to Work


This guide has been updated by HR Solutions on 29th April 2021. It will help you to think about the practical challenges that come with re-opening the workplace whilst the UK is still responding to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

This guide is to help you manage your business whilst at the same time support the needs of your employees and will cover:

  • The importance in keeping risk assessments under review
  • Returning to work – how to bring employees back
  • National and Local lockdowns
  • How to manage employees who must quarantine when returning from overseas
  • How to support employee without childcare
  • A Plan for Jobs
  • Furlough
  • Redundancies
  • Workplace Adaptations
  • Workplace Testing
  • The UK’s Covid-19 Vaccination Programme
  • Managing and Recording Covid-19 absences
  • Employees Refusing to Attend Work.

The importance in keeping risk assessments under review

First, the guiding principle in managing people at work during the Pandemic is about taking care of your people and safeguarding their health and wellbeing.  This is achieved through thorough risk assessments that are under continued review.  Since COVID-19 is still prevalent it means we must continue to monitor the risks that arise from the changing infection levels within the area in which we operate the business.

Under the Health & Safety at Work act 1974, risk assessments are a mandatory task that all employers have a legal duty to complete.  The aim being to assess the risks to the health and safety of employees (and risks to the health and safety of persons not in your employment which would include visitors, guests, contractors and anyone entering the workplace) to which they are exposed while they are at work.

There are 5 steps in completing risk assessments with step 5 being to “review and update”.  The reasons for reviewing your risk assessment include:

  • Annual reviews 
  • Changes in legislation 
  • Significant changes in the task 
  • Improvements you have made 
  • Problems arising from the task 
  • Accidents or near misses 
  • New risks and hazards identified.

Reviewing the risk assessments is an important task and one that needs to be completed at least annually, Why? Things change!  

  • You need to know what the new risks are so you can make adjustments and implement changes, improvements and any new control measures. 
  • Staff change and become complacent! It is important that all staff are aware of the risks and what the employer is doing to keep them safe whilst at work. 

Promoting a good safety culture increases productivity, performance, and workplace morale.  Consider involving staff to undertake risk assessment reviews so they feel part of the process.  Also consider a safety committee made up of different people from different teams so that all knowledge can be shared, and all risk assessments completed and reviewed.

At this time, it would be best practice to review all risk assessments after staff have not been at work and you are considering bringing them back. There would be no better time in completing this exercise and have the confidence in knowing that all practices and procedures have been reviewed and are in the best shape to welcome teams back.

Returning to work – how to bring employees back

How to unfurlough?

The act of furloughing/unfurloughing has never been used in the UK prior to Covid-19 so we do not have specific legislation or precedence around how to administer it, nor has it ever been tested in the courts. However, we do know that we have certain legal obligations stipulating how we should treat our employees, and this should guide us in how we manage furlough.

There is an obligation to act in accordance with existing employment legislation.  Whether it is the Equality Act 2010 which protects people from being discriminated against or the Employment Rights Act 1996 which protects people from being unfairly/constructively dismissed.

Determining an unfurlough strategy upfront will help you to ensure it is carried out fairly and objectively, and you will have a documented thought process to evidence the approach, should it ever be challenged.

So, who do you unfurlough and how?  Here are some thoughts…

  • A more involved process could be undertaken focused on the skills and experience of those on Furlough. Grading employees on these attributes and the ones with the highest scores are brought back.
  • If you do not need everybody to return at once, you can ask for volunteers. This may seem the fairest but could present challenges. If people feel anxious about returning to work, they may not come forward. Equally you may have everybody come forward and so you then must apply a selection process.
  • You could consider basing it on business need. Look at your work activity and your pipeline/business plans.
  • You could consider personal circumstances bearing in mind not to use discriminatory criteria. For example, you have an employee who is shielding because of an underlying medical condition; you could decide to continue to furlough that employee to protect their health and safety.
  • For those whose role allows for working from home this should be considered, as it is one way to maintain social distancing.

Notice of returning

Even if your furlough agreement allowed for an immediate recall to work you should still give employees reasonable notice requiring them to return to work.

This is particularly important given that many people will have additional childcare or other responsibilities which they may need to manage.

Crucially too, is that you ensure your payroll team/provider is aware that furlough will be ending and when staff are to resume normal pay.

National and Local Lockdowns

Over the last year, we have several national lockdowns and a series of localised lockdowns with working from home becoming the norm and the need for flexibility.

If the business cannot remain open, or can only continue at reduced capacity, consider the following options that may be available:

  • Working from home
  • Furlough
  • Short term lay off (contract clause required to implement it, otherwise consent and agreement is required)
  • Short time working (contract clause required to implement it, otherwise consent and agreement is required)
  • Redundancies (see further on in this guide).

How to manage employees who must quarantine when returning to the UK from abroad

This section deals with general travel guidance. We specifically address business travel in the section ‘Business Travel and vaccination passports’.
New quarantine measures for UK and Irish nationals, from 15 February for people arriving in England from ‘red list’ countries mean that:

  • Travelers must self-isolate in a designated hotel for 10 days on arrival to England
  • A negative test must be taken up to 72 hours before travel
  • Quarantine arrangements must be made before travel
  • At the hotel, they must stay in their room
  • Further Covid-19 tests are required on day two and eight. Where the test is positive, the quarantine period is extended
  • It will cost travelers £1,750 per person to quarantine; this includes the cost of the hotel room, food, transport to the hotel and security to help enforce the quarantine.

There will be fines for travellers who fail to take the mandatory Covid-19 tests and any extension to the quarantine timescales that may be required if they test positive. Falsely declaring travel history could also lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

As we are currently in national lockdown, international travel is illegal except for a very few permitted reasons and you are not allowed to go on holiday.

‘Red list countries’

You can find out which countries form part of England’s ‘red list’ of banned countries on the Government’s website.

Travel into England from a country that is not on this designated list still requires self-isolation on arriving into the UK for 10 days. However, through the ‘Test to Release Scheme’ they can also request a test on day five and if it is negative, can stop isolating.

This scheme is not available to those who has been in or travelled through any of the countries on the ‘red list’.

It is also worth noting, that the four nations do have variations on they approach to quarantining on arrival into their country. Therefore, even if the employee’s workplace is based in England but resides in either Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, they must also adhere to all relevant regulations and advice relevant to the country where they reside.

Ways to manage

In the situation where somebody is returning from overseas because they were legally allowed to for one of the permitted reasons, then working from home could be an option for those who have not travelled in or through a country on the ‘red list’. Clearly, working remotely for those who are forced to self-isolate in a designated hotel is most likely not going to be possible.

To manage the period of absence from work because of quarantining measures, there are several ways in which you can manage it:

  • Working from home
  • Unpaid leave (there is no legal right to pay, but do check the contract to check if there is any contractual right requiring the absence to be paid)
  • Offer a blended approach of using a mixture of annual leave, unpaid leave and where relevant, any time accrued.

When managing the options, there is still an important need to act consistently to avoid claims of discrimination through unfair treatment as well as managing annual leave in the spirit of the regulations. For example, even if you want to consider the employee using more annual leave, consider the impact for the rest of the holiday year. The purpose of the working time regulations is to have a rest break from work; there is a valid argument for employees to have rest breaks throughout the year, so if they were to use up all their holiday entitlement to deal with quarantining, then it raises questions around whether they ensuring they get enough rest throughout the year.

However, you chose to manage the absence, be sure to confirm the arrangements in writing so the expectations are clear and prevent disputes after the event.

Further HR, health and safety guidance

Further guidance on the topics listed below, and mentioned above, are covered in our handy guide ‘COVID-19: Practicial Guidance on Managing a Return to Work’, that you can download for free from our Document Shop.

Download Return to Work Guide
  • How to support employees without childcare
  • A Plan for Jobs
  • Furlough
  • Redundancies
  • Workplace Adaptations
  • Face Coverings at Work
  • Employee Screening
  • COVID-19 Vaccinations
  • Business Travel and requiring vaccination passports
  • Refusing to hire applicants who have not had the vaccine
  • Covid-19 Workplace Testing
  • Managing and recording absences from work due to Covid-19.
  • Employees refusing to return.

Need HR, health and safety advice?

HR Solutions are here to provide support and advice on any employment or health and safety related issues; to find out more call us on 0844 324 5840 or complete the form below.

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