Updated Government Guidance for Office Working in England

July 15, 2021

In this OnPoint we report on the guidance issued yesterday on working safely during COVID-19 for people who work in offices, factories, warehouses and labs, which comes into effect on 19 July 2021.


Following the announcement of the lifting of many COVID-19 related restrictions from 19 July 2021, England is moving into “Step 4” of its roadmap out of lockdown and the Government will no longer be instructing people to work from home if they can. However, it expects and recommends a gradual return to the workplace over the summer with arrangements which meet both business and individual needs.

In line with this the Government has now released its guidance Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance from Step 4 – offices, factories and labs (the Guidance). With effect from 19 July 2021, the Guidance replaces the previous guidance of 22 June 2021.

The Guidance sets out six priority actions for employers making arrangements for the return to the workplace in order to protect staff and customers and reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 which in broad terms are as follows:

  1. Health and safety risk assessment: employers should complete a health and safety risk assessment in relation to the risks which COVID-19 presents. This should be shared with staff.
  2. Ventilation: employers should continue to ensure that there is adequate ventilation in indoor spaces.
  3. Cleaning: enhanced cleaning should continue to be carried out by employers, especially of surface touch points, and staff should be asked to use hand sanitiser and clean their hands frequently.
  4. Prevent office outbreaks: employers should not allow employees or visitors who have had a positive COVID-19 test result, or who display COVID symptoms, to enter the workplace.
  5. Provide check-in facilities: employers are no longer required to collect customer contact details but are encouraged to continue to do so to support NHS Test and Trace.
  6. Communication and training: employers should communicate any revised safety measures to their workers, contractors and visitors.

The key changes in the Guidance from the previous guidance documents are summarised below:

Risk Assessments

  • Employers should update workplace risk assessments on an ongoing basis and consider the recommendations in the Guidance. To carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, employers should consider the different ways the virus can spread – taking into account that the main way of spreading COVID-19 is through close contact with an infected person - and put in place measures to reduce the risk of each of those different ways, as suggested in the Guidance. Employers should also consider whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made to such measures for staff and customers with disabilities.
  • Local authorities will continue to have the power to place public health restrictions on employers if there is a serious and imminent threat to public health.

The Return of Employees and Consultation

  • The Guidance recommends that employers implement a gradual return to work over the summer. Employers should continue to comply with their legal duty to consult with workers about health and safety measures that have been put in place to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19, together with the timing of a return to the workplace, whether through existing health and safety representatives or otherwise.
  • Ways of working have dramatically changed during the pandemic with many employers considering hybrid working arrangements. Whatever model is adopted by employers should be discussed with employee representatives and those affected.
  • Employers should be cognisant of employees who may not have yet had their two doses of vaccine and how this may impact their willingness to return to the office. Higher-risk individuals should be given particular consideration given that they will no longer be advised to shield. Individual needs should be discussed and precautions adopted as advised by their clinicians.

Mitigation Measures

  • Ventilation: in order to mitigate the risk of aerosol transmission, the Guidance recommends that employers ensure adequate ventilation. HSE guidance is available on how to identify a poorly ventilated area and the Guidance encourages the use of CO2 monitors to identify poorly ventilated areas. If ventilation cannot be improved, employers should consider whether they should restrict the numbers of employees with access to the relevant areas or the time spent in them or stop using them. The use of outside space is also encouraged where practical.
  • Minimise social contact: while social distancing rules will no longer apply, employers should continue to attempt to minimise transmission through social contact. In particular, employers should review office layouts, use screens to minimise face-to-face working and, where practical, use “fixed teams or partnering” or “cohorting.” Hot-desking is discouraged but where it cannot be avoided regular cleaning between users is essential.
  • Face masks: while face coverings will no longer be mandatory (other than where specifically mandated - for example by Transport for London), their use is still expected and recommended in crowded and enclosed places and indeed some employees may choose to continue wearing them. The Guidance recommends the adoption of signage and other measures to encourage workers to continue to wear masks – particularly in areas where they encounter new people. Any decisions by employers to mandate the wearing of masks should permit reasonable adjustments for disabled people consistent with employment, health and safety and equality legislation.
  • Hygiene: customers and workers should be advised to wash their hands or use hand sanitiser frequently and surfaces should be cleaned regularly.


  • Self-isolation remains mandatory for those who:
    • test positive for or display symptoms of COVID-19; or
    • are a “close contact” of someone who tests positive. However, after 16 August 2021, under 18s and those who have received a second vaccine at least 10 days before the contact, will no longer be required to isolate in these circumstances.
  • Self-isolating workers who have taken a COVID test with a negative result may be able to return to work), but will still need to self-isolate if, for example, someone they live with has tested positive or has symptoms and is awaiting a test result.
  • If an employer knows a worker is self-isolating, it is an offence to allow that worker to attend work.

Outbreaks in the workplace

  • Should employers become aware of any positive cases of COVID-19 (irrespective of the number), they should inform their local authority Public Health team as soon as possible (contact details are available here).
  • Instead of waiting for information from NHS Test and Trace, in order to reduce the risk of a workplace outbreak, employers should immediately identify any close workplace contacts and ask them to self-isolate (bearing in mind the changes to the self-isolation rules from 16 August 2021 as referenced above).

Test and Trace

  • While employers are no longer obliged to collect Test and Trace check-in information for visitors and do not have to refuse entry to those who refuse to provide it, the Guidance recommends that employers continue to display NHS QR posters and that alternative record systems should be made available to those who do not have the NHS app but wish to check in.


In moving to Step 4 of the roadmap, the Government is relaxing some of its legal requirements, such as those relating to facemasks, and is removing some of the very prescriptive detail from its previous guidance for employers.

However, employers still need to ensure that their workplaces are safe in line with their underlying legal duties to protect the health and safety of their staff. In reality this means that many of the measures which employers have in place already to keep their workplaces “Covid secure” will need to remain for the time being. The difference from 19 July 2021 will be that employers will have more flexibility to determine what is appropriate for their particular workforces and workplaces.

In summary, employers will need to consider the Guidance carefully and factor its recommendations into their return to the workplace planning in their particular circumstances. They will need to keep the position under continual review not least in case of changes to Government guidance as and when further reviews of the situation take place and to monitor the effectiveness of the measures they put in place. Issues to address will include:

  • whether and to what extent face masks will be required around their premises;
  • how a return to the office environment will be phased in; and
  • for the longer term, whether hybrid working will be permitted, on what basis and how it will be managed.

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