Looking ahead: exiting lockdown

18 May 2020

The government recently outlined its plans for how the UK will exit the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown. On 10 May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a relaxing of certain lockdown restrictions, and the government published a 50-page guidance document. Here, we consider the guidance, and contemplate how businesses can prepare their workforces to restart operations once the COVID-19 lockdown ends.

A phased recovery

The government has outlined how it intends to move out of the COVID-19 lockdown. This will be done using three 'phases'. The UK has now exited phase one and moved into phase two. The country will only move to the next phase if it passes five tests. These include making sure the NHS can cope; a sustained fall in the daily death rate; a decrease in infection levels; having ample personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies; and, crucially, confidence that any adjustments would not risk a second peak which could overwhelm the NHS.

The government guidance states that, until the UK can reach phase three, the government will gradually replace the existing social restrictions with 'smarter measures' that balance its aims as effectively as possible. According to the government, these measures will be developed over the coming weeks and months.

Phase three centres on the creation and production of effective COVID-19 treatments, which will allow the UK to reduce the effect of the virus to 'manageable levels'.

However, the government warned that the UK still faces significant challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It stated that this is 'not a short-term crisis', and that there is no quick or easy solution. The plan as outlined in the new guidance document 'depends on continued widespread compliance' from the public.

Ensuring the UK economy stabilises

In the guidance, the government stated that it recognises that a strong economy is the best way to protect people's jobs and fund the country's public services, including the NHS. As part of its plans to lift certain lockdown restrictions, the government will take into account:

  • the short-term economic impact of COVID-19, including the number of people who can return to work where it is safe to do so
  • the UK's long-term economic future
  • the sustainability of UK public finances
  • financial stability
  • any distributional effects.

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the UK economy has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the economy contracting by 2% in the first quarter of 2020.

The government has implemented a range of support schemes designed to help businesses and individuals adversely affected by the COVID-19 lockdown, from the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) to the Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). In the guidance, the government warned that these measures are 'extraordinarily costly' and 'cannot be sustained for a prolonged period of time'. As the government adjusts the lockdown restrictions, it will also need to wind down the economic support measures while people begin to return to work.

Within the guidance, the government stated that the global economy will not 'return to normal' after COVID-19, and that the UK will need to be agile in adapting to the new normal in order to improve living standards and ensure the UK economy thrives.

Guidance for employers and employees

The government acknowledges that many businesses have already been working in new ways, such as moving online and adapting to a delivery model. The government guidance stipulates that, for the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal workplace, wherever possible. It hopes that this will minimise transmission of COVID-19 from person to person.

Workers who cannot work from home are advised to travel to work if their workplace is open. The guidance states that sectors of the UK economy that are permitted to be open should be open, including food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics and distribution.

In the long-term, the central issue for all businesses will be how to accommodate the government's safe social-distancing measure of two metres between colleagues in closed workplaces, and for customers in public-facing businesses such as retail. Consequently, many large businesses are expecting their offices to operate at reduced capacity until the middle of next year.

Making sure workplaces are safe

The guidance outlines that new safety guidelines must be developed in order to ensure workplaces can be adapted to operate safely. The government stated that it has been consulting industry bodies, trade unions, the Health and Safety Executive and Public Health England, amongst others, in order to create the new guidelines and consider how they should be implemented.

The latest government guidance can be found here. However, the roadmap out of the COVID-19 lockdown looks far from straightforward. We will be keeping abreast of the government's measures.

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