knowledge | 23 September 2021 |

Updated Government Guidance on the Return to the Workplace

This week marked the beginning of the return to the office for many employees, coinciding with the most recent stage in the government’s easing of pandemic-related restrictions on 20 September 2021.  In planning for and implementing a return to the workplace, employers should pay close attention to the guidance note published by the Labour Employer Economic Forum Consultative Group (“LEEF”), entitled "Returning Safely to the Workplace from 20 September (the “LEEF guidance”), as well as to the updated Work Safely Protocol. We consider here the key takeaways for employers as they begin to reintroduce employees to the physical workplace. 

Current guidance

On 31 August 2021, the government announced plans for the gradual re-opening of society and the lifting of the vast majority of pandemic-related restrictions by 22 October 2021.  As part of this reopening timeline, the government advised a “phased and staggered” return to the workplace for specific business requirements from 20 September 2021.  The LEEF guidance was issued on 7 September 2021 and supports the guidance originally set out in the Work Safely Protocol, as first published in May 2020 and most recently updated on 17 September 2021.

The LEEF guidance states that, between now and 22 October 2021, businesses can begin a phased and staggered return to work places for “specific business requirements”.  The interpretation of this guidance will depend on the specific circumstances of each workplace, and LEEF advises that it should be informed by consultations with employees.  Each employer should create a plan for the physical return of employees to work based on their particular business requirements and, if not already carried out, it is important that this plan would include a risk assessment.  The LEEF guidance states that the return to workplaces must take place in a cautious and careful manner, taking into account:

  • that attendance initially is required for specific business requirements;
  • the appropriate attendance levels in accordance with the revised Work Safely Protocol and associated checklists; and
  • the use of staggered arrangements including flexible working hours and parttime attendance to ensure employees return in controlled numbers over a designated period.

Physical distancing, the wearing of masks, and appropriate ventilation continue to be required at this point in time, along with self-isolation/restricted movements for those with symptoms (who should immediately seek a test), those with positive test results, and close contacts of confirmed cases, unless fully vaccinated with no symptoms.

From 22 October 2021 onwards

As noted above, based on at or close to 90% of people aged 16 or over being vaccinated in the coming weeks, the current timeline for the removal of the majority of the remaining pandemic-related restrictions is 22 October 2021.  As part of this, the requirement to work from home will be removed on 22 October 2021, allowing a return to physical attendance in workplaces on, as described in the LEEF guidance, “a phased and cautious basis appropriate to each sector.”

In advance of 22 October 2021, further engagement will take place between government, trade unions and employer representatives, under the auspices of LEEF, in relation to guidance required for employers and employees from 22 October 2021 and beyond, taking account of the latest public health guidance at that time.

The LEEF guidance also states that the government will continue to implement Making Remote Work, Ireland’s National Remote Work Strategy (discussed in a previous McCann FitzGerald briefing here) in an attempt to support employers and employees in ensuring that, following the pandemic, remote working remains a prominent permanent feature in Irish workplaces.

The revised Work Safely Protocol

The government’s update to the Work Safely Protocol (the “Protocol”) was published on 17 September 2021, in advance of the first stage of the phased return to the workplace for many employees on 20 September 2021.  The updates to the Protocol are primarily technical in nature.  The Protocol continues to require employers to keep their COVID-19 response plan up to date; to appoint a lead worker representative/worker representatives to coordinate with the employer on COVID-19 preventative measures and to assist with their implementation; to establish and issue pre-return to work checks; to provide training and up-to-date information to employees; to implement adequate infection prevention and control measures; and to put procedures in place for prompt identification and isolation of workers who may have symptoms of COVID-19.

With respect to vaccination, the Protocol, as before, states that the decision to get a vaccination against COVID-19 is voluntary, and employees will therefore make their own individual decisions in this regard.  The Protocol states that employers should follow the Data Protection Commission’s guidance in this area, as “the processing or requesting of information on an individual’s vaccination status may not be appropriate.”

How can we help?

Our Employment, Pensions and Incentives Group would be happy to address any questions employers may have in relation to the LEEF guidance or the Protocol. Your usual contact in McCann FitzGerald would be happy to provide further information.

Also contributed by Declan O'Rourke.

This briefing is for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. Such advice should always be taken before acting on any of the matters discussed.

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