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Boris Johnson’s speech: workers’ legal rights explained

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Brits hoped the Prime Minister’s Sunday night speech would lead to more freedom to visit family and friends. Instead he unveiled conditional steps, including measures on returning to work.

The much-awaited speech from Boris Johnson last night gave brief details on the roadmap for lifting the UK out of lockdown but he stressed it was ‘conditional’ on meeting certain targets.

For now, he told the nation that anyone who can’t work from home, such as those working in construction or manufacturing, “should be actively encouraged to go to work”.

He said: “Work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”

However, these employees should avoid public transport and therefore walk, cycle or take a car to work.

Johnson added that the government’s been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces Covid-19 secure.

He also said that the phased re-opening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, beginning with reception, year 1 and year 6 may be possible from 1 June.

Given his speech, employees will have questions and concerns about what this means for them.

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, answers the common questions you may have following the PM’s speech:

1) I can’t work from home and can’t walk, cycle or drive to work. Can I refuse to go to work and what are the likely consequences?

Employees who refuse to attend work will technically be breaching their obligations under the contract of employment, and this would entitle an employer to take disciplinary action.

However, the exact circumstances of their refusal will be critical. If employers require employees to come to work when it is not safe to do so, they may breach their duty of care towards employees.

Disciplinary action in this instance is not likely to be reasonable, so employers should ensure they are taking every reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of their staff.

2) I’m an older worker/in the shielding/clinically vulnerable category or pregnant and can’t work from home. What’s the employer’s responsibility here?

The duty of care would dictate this situation. Those employees that can work from home should continue to do so, and an employee’s specific circumstances should be assessed.

An individual approach is likely to be required, and if employees have valid concerns, a resolution should be sought, including extended time off work.

3) I’ll be expected to go to work but I have childcare issues as schools and nurseries are yet to open. Can I continue to be furloughed/take annual leave or unpaid leave?

While employers can expect employees to return to work where it is safe to do so, there may be extenuating circumstances that prevent this for the time being.

While employers may be able to move quickly to get the business back open, it may take a little longer for the employee to find alternative arrangements for their caring responsibilities.

What happens here will be down to employer/employee agreement and can include continued furlough, annual leave or any other type of leave the employee is entitled to either by law or in the contract of employment.

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