In March, COVID-19 knocked the wind out of the UK economy as many businesses were forced to grind to a halt during national lockdown.
However, as business owners dust themselves off and attempt to get their operations fully back up to speed, scientists are warning that a second national lockdown remains a possibility. So how can employers prepare for a second wave of coronavirus?
Lesson from past pandemics
A UK scientific report, “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand”, directly compares coronavirus to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Importantly, the 1918 pandemic occurred in three waves.
While the 1918 virus subsided in the summer after a first spring wave, it was actually a third wave during winter 1918-19 that proved most fatal. Therefore, even if the current rising number of COVID-19 cases begin to drop, businesses should be prepared for a resurgence. Pandemics are well known to occur in waves; infections typically spike, peak and taper off, only to repeat. Crucially, the UK scientific report warns that the transmission of COVID-19 can quickly rebound when intervention efforts are relaxed.
In resuming activity in the midst of a pandemic, employers should above all strive to keep their workplaces safe. Indeed, Nick Wilson, Director of Health & Safety Services at Ellis Whittam, stresses that “employee safety has to remain paramount”. He says: “Employers must make sure they’re up to date with the latest guidance on how to limit transmission of the virus and then apply that understanding to their own workplace to make sure every reasonable precaution continues to be taken to provide a safe work environment”.
Nick continues: “If your controls are lacking, you risk a COVID-19 outbreak and this could have a catastrophic impact on business operations.”
Health and safety law provides employers must “so far as is reasonably practicable” protect the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees by removing or reducing workplace risks. It is therefore important to review the latest applicable COVID-19 government guidelines, as these provide a benchmark for what can be considered “reasonable”.
In addition, appointing a responsible person within their workplace to take the lead on COVID-19 mitigation and planning will help to ensure that appropriate safety measures are considered and, where necessary, implemented and monitored.
Employers should have sought input from workers on reopening, and you should continue to do so regarding any expansion of your reopening plans. It’s highly unlikely that any organisation will be able to set a reopening plan, find it works 100% and never need to change anything. Modifications will likely be needed as the situation evolves and workers learn how their jobs are impacted by the various control measures you have put in place.
Expand your controls
To further help limit transmission and ultimately keep your business operating, you should consider additional engineering controls. For example, could you install more barriers or change furniture layout so that workers are distanced even further apart? As wintry weather takes hold, it’s also a good idea to check that heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are running well.
Further things to think about include administrative controls, such as screening people who enter worksites or offices. Also, consider whether frequently-touched surfaces such as workstations, doorknobs and lift buttons could be more routinely cleaned.
It’s important that standards don’t slip over time, especially when the risk is rising.
You may have been working under these new conditions for a while, and this can lead to complacency and cutting corners. Keep a handle on what your staff are doing day-to-day and task-to-task and check whether they are continuing to:
Regular walk-throughs of the workplace will be particularly important this winter. Look at how staff are doing their work – not just where they’re sitting but where they stand and walk to. Are there areas where people are beginning to gather closely? If so, double down on keeping them at least “one metre plus” apart.
Remain safe and compliant with our free employer resources
For further guidance on continuity planning and preparing for worst-case scenarios, plus a range of sample risk assessments and other template documents, visit our free Coronavirus Advice Hub.