Covid: Working from home guidance changes from July 19 in England - what are your rights?

Is hybrid working here to stay? Credit: Daniel Thomas/Unsplash

Working from home guidance changes from July 19 in England with tens of thousands of employees being encouraged to return to the office or shop floor.

While many people will be delighted to finally get out of the attic or spare box room after months and months of dodgy internet connections and cramped conditions, others will be anxious about travelling on public transport and once more being part of a large team.

So, what can you reasonably expect your employer to do to make your workplace Covid-secure? Can you refuse to return or demand to work from home indefinitely?

ITV News spoke to Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, who said by and large, big business have "generally got their thinking sorted" on how to approach a return to work, on hybrid working.

"I don't think there's ever been a time where it's more important to have meaningful discussion between employer and employee... it's never been more critical; leaders knowing how to reassure people with good language and communication," she says.

Listen to our coronavirus podcast for information on hybrid working:

Where do I stand legally about demanding to work from home?

She said there has been an increase in the number of legal claims around employees disputing the need to get back into the office or workplace when many have argued they had successfully shown over the past 18 months how effective they were working from home.

"Many are saying: 'I've proven I can do it, let me do it permanently'.

"But many do not have the legal right to do that.

"You have to look back at your contract of employment and see what that states about a person's place of work and if it does state you are office-based, the employer has the right to state 'you are office-based, come back' - it's how they say that that's key.

"An employee, if they disagree with that, does have the right to request to work from home but an employer does not have to agree with that."

Many will argue they have been just as productive working from home.

So, what are my rights?

Once a year, under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, you can request flexible working, if you have 26 weeks service.

The employer does not have to grant that request and it can be refused for a number of reasons, such as the potential disruption it would cause to the business or undue pressure added to colleagues.

These reasons are more likely to apply in smaller businesses where taking one or two people out of the workplace could likely have a bigger impact on others.

Ms Palmer says an employee can argue that they will not be safe working in the office, or factory, and the employee is obliged to consider whether there any validity to this assertion.

She says: "If there is, then they need to act, if there isn't they need to have 'reasonable and reassuring' conversations with the employee about why they believe their assertion is incorrect.

"Employers need to think of impact of morale within the workplace and among workers with flexibility."

The same process applies no matter how big or small the size of the business. And, the law does not distinguish the reasons for the request to work from home.

Lockdown rules in England: What's changing from July 19

What has happened to social distancing and the rule of six?

The 'one metre plus' rule has been scrapped entirely, as of July 19 in England. However, some guidance to maintain social distancing in certain situations will remain in place of the legal restrictions.

Social distancing guidance will continue if someone is Covid positive and self-isolating, or in airports, or other ports of entry, to avoid travellers arriving from amber or red-list countries mixing with those from green list areas.

Limits on social contact in England have disappeared, meaning the end of the rule of six indoors and the limit of 30 people for outdoor gatherings.

Do I still need to wear a face mask?

There is now no legal requirements to wear face coverings - but guidance still encourages using masks in some settings, including hospitals, healthcare settings and in crowded enclosed public spaces.

Has the working from home guidance changed?

The guidance on working from home has gone. It's ultimately down to employers to decide whether to keep staff at home or in the office, but the government say employers are able to plan the return of staff to the workplace.

What about weddings and funerals?

The current limits on numbers of people who can attend weddings, funerals and other life events has ended.

What's happening in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The changes to Covid rules announced by Boris Johnson, only impact England and will not change regulations in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland.

The Welsh Government “would like to move together” with other parts of the UK in lifting coronavirus restrictions but will only do so if it is “right for Wales”, health minister Eluned Morgan said on Monday 5 July.

As of July 19, restrictions in Scotland have eased, with all areas of the country moving to level 0. The government is aiming to lift all major restrictions in Scotland by August 9.

In Northern Ireland, some significant restrictions have already been eased including allowing the resumption of live music and the lifting of caps on organised outdoor gatherings.

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What about the vaccine?

Some firms are only going to recruit those who have been fully vaccinated - no jab, no job. And there are discussions ongoing at governmental level about similar measures being enforced in the care sector.

However, as Ms Palmer says, there is no case law in this area a yet and "time will tell whether the courts will deem that as fair".

She adds: "It's a lot easier to adopt this approach for new staff members - as a requirement of the job offer, in the care sector, for example."

Boris Johnson has announced employees should be encouraged to return to the workplace from July 19 Credit: PA

Can you ask not to work next to someone who has not been vaccinated?

You can ask but there is no obligation on behalf of the employer to make this happen.

Employers will have to explore the rationale why - they would have to explore whether someone who has not had the vaccine had genuine health reasons, for example.

Equally, the health reasons of someone who is concerned about working next to someone who has not been vaccinated would have to be considered.

Does July 19 mean the end of Covid measures? What are employers obliged to do?

Employers should maintain Covid-secure protocols. They could insist on mask-wearing in certain areas - for example, when you leave your workstation.

Shelly Asquith, Health, Safety and Wellbeing Policy Officer at the TUC, says employers must engage you on any changes made to Covid risk assessments.

"Employers still have a legal duty to protect your health and safety at work. They must, by law, conduct a risk assessment and take steps to reduce risk. This includes the ongoing risk of Covid-19. 

"The government has said social distancing and face coverings are no longer a legal requirement, but if these are part of the measures identified in your workplace risk assessment to help reduce the risk of transmission, they should remain in place."

Recent surveys suggest most Britons will continue to wear masks after July 19 Credit: PA

She also points out that those 'clinically vulnerable' who have been shielding for health reasons can request to remain on furlough until the end of September (when the scheme is due to end) regardless of vaccination status.

Matthew Fell, CBI Chief UK Policy Director, said: “It makes sense that the order to work from home if possible is removed at this stage.

“The reality is that many firms are well-advanced in their plans and are proceeding with hybrid working models, just as the government advises.

"It’s up to employers to engage positively with their staff to shape the unique new way of working every business needs to consider."

Latest advice from the government on Covid-secure workplaces can be found here.