Policy Newsletter 2021 - UK Update

Published September 2021

See the International update here.

COVID

COVID winter plan

The Government has unveiled its strategy for tackling COVID during autumn and winter in England. On 14 September, the Prime Minister outlined a ‘Plan A’, which will consist of promoting vaccines and continuing testing and isolation rules, and a ‘Plan B’, which would reintroduce compulsory face coverings, and working from home, if the NHS comes under unsustainable pressure. There was not a ‘single trigger’ for the Government moving to its ‘Plan B’ measures.

 

The five million adults who have not been jabbed have been urged to take up the offer. Boris Johnson also announced booster jabs for all over-50s and the most vulnerable, and single doses being offered to 12 to 15-year-olds in schools – this might help alleviate pressure on working parents as it would reduce the likelihood of that age group becoming infected and needing to self-isolate. Downing Street has not ruled out a ‘firebreak’ lockdown as a last resort, if the NHS were to be overwhelmed by COVID cases in England.

 

With deaths within 28 days of a positive test reaching their highest level since 1 March, scientists have warned that restrictions could again be necessary in the coming months, such as limits on gatherings and a return to compulsory mask wearing, self-isolating and widespread testing. Currently there is an average of just over 750 COVID admissions per day in England. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said its modelling suggested hospitalisations could reach 2,000 to 7,000 per day in October. SAGE advised that a ‘relatively light set of measures’ could keep case numbers down if they were brought in early enough. The Prime Minister hopes to avoid the need for additional restrictions by getting more people vaccinated.

 

In a sharp U-turn announced by the Health Secretary, plans to introduce vaccine passports for access into nightclubs and large events in England will not now go ahead at the end of September. The plan will be kept ‘in reserve’ should it be needed over autumn or winter if infections and hospitalisation increase to a point which puts the NHS under significant pressure - factors would include hospital admission numbers, pressures on A&E and staffing levels.

 

In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford announced that from October 11, people in Wales will need to show proof of being fully vaccinated or present a negative lateral flow test to enter large indoor venues. Meanwhile in Scotland, MSPs have passed plans to introduce a vaccine passport scheme for people attending nightclubs, major sporting events and many concerts and festivals. The Scottish Government says the scheme will allow large events to go ahead as safely as possible. However, there’s concern among some business and opposition parties.

 

Returning to the workplace

While many companies are planning to offer flexible or remote working as staff begin to return to offices, there are still many that do not. A British Chambers of Commerce survey of 900 businesses in April 2021 found that although three in four firms (75%) expected to continue having some staff working from home, only 38% offered flexitime or staggered hours, and just 32% offered working from different locations. Only 15% offered all jobs as flexible as standard.

 

Family charities are, however, warning that increasing numbers, especially mothers and pregnant women, are being made to return to workplaces against their will. The Chief Executive of the charity Working Families has reported growing numbers of calls to its advice line, mostly from women who don’t want or aren’t able to return to the office as much as their employer is demanding. Since April this year, the charity has seen a sharp rise in calls about flexible working, while a third are about childcare issues. It said some employers trialling hybrid models are insisting staff go back a certain number of days a week, while others are denying work from home requests. Director of Maternity Action, Ros Bragg, said the Government has failed to protect pregnant women at work during the COVID pandemic and called for it to ‘wake up’ to the risk they face and ‘take swift action to reform and strengthen workplace health and safety.

 

British Safety Council’s view remains that employers should make workplaces as safe as reasonably practical to protect the health and safety of workers. On flexible/ hybrid working, it is up to individual businesses to determine their approach based on operational needs.

 

End of the furlough scheme

According to a study by a leading thinktank, Resolution Foundation, Britain’s shortage of lorry drivers and care staff is unlikely to be solved by furloughed workers being made redundant when the job protection scheme ends at the end of September.

 

Resolution Foundation believes a mismatch between the types of jobs that are no longer needed and the vacancies in industries facing a significant lack of skilled staff will persist into next year without Government intervention. The warning came as truck companies said a national shortage of 500,000 lorry and van drivers – forecast by the CBI to last a further two years - could lead to a rise in food prices. Business leaders from across the retail, wholesale and farming sectors have criticised the Government’s response to supermarket shortages after an exodus of European Union drivers, which they said could not be replaced by domestic drivers in the short term.

 

The Resolution Foundation report found that 900,000 workers will still be on the furlough scheme when it ends on 30 September, most of them older workers or those under the age of 25. It said that while older workers may leave the job market altogether if they are made redundant and young workers may find alternative jobs, there was likely to be a rise in unemployment next month, possibly from the current 4.7% figure to as high as 5.5%.

 

There are also media reports that care workers in England are leaving for Amazon and other better-paid jobs. The retailer is luring staff with 30% higher wages, while some workers object to the care sector’s ‘no jab, no job’ policy. Some three-quarters of care home operators are reporting an increase in staff quitting since April, the key reasons being a desire for less stress and for higher pay, and to avoid mandatory vaccination, which comes into effect on 11 November from when care workers will have to be fully vaccinated against the virus to carry out frontline work. NHS figures published in early September revealed slowing rates of double COVID vaccination among care home staff, with 87,000 (18%) in England still not fully jabbed – 41,000 workers in England having still received no vaccine at all. The National Care Association, which represents independent operators, is warning of a growing staffing crisis which could leave 170,000 (10%) vacancies by the end of the year – the worst on recent record.

 

British Safety Council has previously reported that while under-25s have been the age group most likely to be on furlough for most of the crisis, over-65s have recently become the group with the highest furlough rates – and most likely to have been furloughed for long periods of time – putting them at higher risk of job losses when the scheme ends. Older workers also suffer more severe consequences from losing their jobs than other age groups. Over-55s are less likely than younger workers to return to work within six months of becoming unemployed and tend to take a substantial pay cut when they do return. Therefore, the Government should look to invest in skills and training for older workers.

 

Mandatory jabs for frontline health staff being considered

Compulsory vaccinations for care home workers in England (those working in care homes regulated by the Care Quality Commission), unless they are exempt, will be brought in later this year. A consultation is now being launched about whether this should apply to other health professionals. The Government has reported that, so far, 88% of NHS trust staff have received two doses of the COVID vaccine. And depending on the outcome of a six-week consultation it could mean jabs become mandatory for frontline NHS and care workers in England. But some unions and care organisations have warned that making the jabs mandatory will lead to staff shortages. Staff in contact with those receiving care would also have to have the flu vaccine. Exemptions do apply. If the proposal is approved, only fully vaccinated workers would be able to be deployed to deliver health and care services. Health Secretary Sajid Javid is urging all health service workers to get both jabs. Views on the proposals are being sought from staff, patients and their families. A final decision is expected this winter.

 

Long COVID less common than feared

Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures suggest one in 40 people with COVID has symptoms lasting at least three months.  In April, an ONS report put the proportion at about one in every 10.

The latest, large and comprehensive analysis suggests long COVID may be less common than previously thought. But the condition is not fully understood and still has no universally agreed definition, leading to different studies producing different figures.

 

Like many other reports, the analysis suggests women, 50–69-year-olds and people with other long-term health conditions are the most likely to have some of the symptoms of long COVID 12 weeks after a COVID infection. The ONS study looked at data from more than 50,000 people, half of whom had tested positive for COVID. They asked people about specific symptoms, as well as asking people to self-diagnose in another analysis. While no analysis of long COVID is perfect, this analysis does omit some classic long COVID symptoms. But it is a big addition to research on the condition and one that suggests that this illness is, thankfully, less common than previously thought.

Wellbeing

Scotland to trial a four-day week

Scotland is to trial a four-day week, but without a loss of pay. A new report from IPPR Scotland, published on 1 September, offered advice on the trials, and pointed to some employers and countries (Iceland, Japan and New Zealand) that are making this happen. For example, five eight-hour days could become four 10-hour days; or reduced hours don't have to be taken weekly and could be targeted at particular groups, such as parents. However, this is not a one-trick policy that delivers the necessary boost to productivity that is necessary to pay for a four-day week. Improving employees' sense of wellbeing, and therefore their output, requires the remaining 80% of hours to be well-managed.

 

According to the IPPR report, 80% of workers say they'd prefer a four-day week, as it would improve their wellbeing, while a recent survey suggested 65% of workers think a shorter working week would make them more productive. The theory is to be tested in at least one trial by the Scottish Government. However, it may not be so attractive for employers. One of the ideas suggested by IPPR Scotland is that those hours no longer being worked could be used to improve directed outcomes of more training, either related to that employment or more generally. Or they could be directed to and focused on other outcomes, such as helping workers as parents. The reduced hours, says the IPPR, could be handed to workers as annual leave entitlement, as more public holidays, or as parental leave for those who qualify.

 

IPPR Scotland is suggesting a Low Hours Commission, to help drive this forward, and a Scottish trial across sectors. They want to see how this works in non-office employment, on lower pay, and among those with condensed or part-time hours. Its report suggests that there is a need not only to cap maximum hours (already done, for many, under the EU Working Time Directive) but to put a minimum-hours floor on employment. This is a bid to get at zero-hour contracts, presented as the need for working people to be employed for sufficient hours to take home a living-wage packet. As women are more likely to be in these low-paid part-time roles, one positive that could result might be an acceptance of lower hours as the norm - leaving men to use their increased leisure hours to take on more unpaid family and household roles.

 

British Safety Council’s view is that an employer who is trialling a reduction in hours while retaining pay levels, is also a company that's likely to be doing the other things that make workers happy and motivated. These include autonomy, flexibility, trust, and high-quality management that makes people feel valued and that their work is worthwhile. Cutting hours doesn't help managers get better at managing, or that workers find ways to utilise their technology more efficiently. 

 

UK failing on childcare

A survey of more than 20,000 working parents shows that the childcare system is financially crippling, hinders careers and needs radical overall

 

The survey was produced and distributed by 12 organisations including Mumsnet, the TUC, Gingerbread, Working Families, the Fatherhood Institute, Maternity Action, Black Mums Upfront and the Young Women’s Trust. The data, which was not weighted, was collected from 20,046 parents in the UK with at least one child aged 18 or under, carried out between 20 July and 31 August 2021 – with 97% of respondents being women.

 

The survey found that 96% believed Ministers were not doing enough to support parents with the cost and availability of childcare, while 97% said childcare in the UK was too expensive. One-third of parents said they paid more for childcare than their rent or mortgage. This proportion rose to 38% for both those in full-time work and single parents, and to 47% of respondents from a black ethnic background.

 

The survey results were issued ahead of a debate on childcare in Parliament on 13 September that was triggered after more than 100,000 parents signed a petition calling for an independent review of childcare funding and affordability. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the UK has the third most expensive childcare system in the world, behind only Slovakia and Switzerland - on average a full-time nursery place costs £12,376 a year. Research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that between 2008 and 2016 the cost of a one-year-old child’s nursery provision grew four times faster than wages in England. In London, it was more than seven times faster.

 

There have been calls on the Government to not ignore the misery and stress this issue causes for (working) parents across the whole country – 94% of parents who changed their working patterns after having children said childcare costs were a factor in the decision. The survey found 99% of all respondents agreed that childcare should be recognised as a vital part of the UK’s economic and social infrastructure. Joeli Brearley, the founder of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, said, ‘All we want from the government is transparency. The cost of childcare continues to increase, forcing more parents out of their jobs, which will have serious long-term consequences for all of us. We don’t believe the government has a grasp of how big the issue is and the impact it is having on families and the economy’.

 

New mother wins sex discrimination case

A new mother who was not allowed to work a four-day week and leave early to pick up her daughter from nursery wins £184,000 sex discrimination pay-out. As the job required her to work until 6pm, when nurseries usually close, she asked to go part-time so that she could work four days a week and finish at 5pm instead. Alice Thompson, from Weybridge, Surrey, was earning £120,000 a year as a full-time sales manager at Manors, a small firm in London, when she fell pregnant in 2018.

 

Her former company director rejected the request, claiming the business (estate agency) couldn’t afford the new arrangement. He also feared it would cause a ‘detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand’ and an ‘inability to reorganise work among existing staff’. Ms Thompson, whose contract had no details on maternity leave, launched a grievance referring to her request to work flexibly and quit in December 2019. She took her former employer, Manors, to an employment tribunal, claiming she was driven to ensure her daughter does not have ‘the same experience’ when she grows up. The panel awarded her £184,961.32 for loss of earnings, pension contributions, injury to feelings and interest, finding that the company’s insistence on a 6pm finish placed her at a ‘disadvantage’.

 

Lockdown weight gain puts more at risk of type 2 diabetes

According to an NHS study, weight gained during the pandemic is putting more people at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, with those seeking weight loss help from the health service heavier on average than before the start of the COVID crisis.

 

People asking for weight-loss help are on average 2.27kg (5lbs) heavier than those starting the programme during the previous three years, the research reveals. People aged under 40 enrolling on the NHS diabetes prevention programme have put on the most weight and are, on average, 8lbs heavier than those enrolling before the pandemic, according to the study, published in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. This could have significant repercussion for the health service, as it is estimated that even gaining 1kg can increase the risk of developing diabetes by about 8%.

 

With the incidence of diabetes in the workplace likely increasing, so too is the potential impact on health, safety and wellbeing. There are several ways organisations can help employees manage their diabetes in the workplace, such as implementing and reviewing risk assessments for the role(s) workers with diabetes undertake. Essentially, employers need to be aware of their responsibility for managing diabetes in the workplace.

Building Safety

Safety case regime for high-rise residential buildings

Following the introduction of the Building Safety Bill, the Health and Safety Executive has published some early key messages on the proposed new safety case regime for high-rise residential buildings. A key element of the proposed new laws is that high-rise residential buildings will require a safety case when they are occupied.

 

This will complement existing building and fire safety legislation and require those responsible to think critically about the potential fire and structural hazards in their buildings and show how they are keeping their buildings safe. Safety cases will be a new concept to many of those involved. HSE has been working with a group of early industry adopters and other housing providers to provide some insights to help those who may have new roles to prepare for the changes and better understand what a safety case is.

 

‘Safety case principles for high-rise residential buildings’ provides support on taking sensible, risk-based steps to keep people safe in and around buildings. You can access the principles here.

 

BSI's competence framework for building safety managers

The British Standards Institution (BSI) is the UK national standards body. Last year, BSI started work on the 'Built Environment Competence Programme'. This industry-led programme aims to raise the standards of workforce competence across the built environment.

 

The Building Safety Bill outlines the new role of building safety manager (BSM). As part of the competence programme, BSI has drafted a competence framework for the BSM role. The framework specifies building safety competence for the BSM's role, functions, activities and tasks. And BSI needs to make sure it captures up-to-date knowledge and good working practices. To achieve this, BSI need the views of people who work in the housing, construction, fire, and safety industries. You can download the draft framework here.

Environment Update

Engines Off webinar

British Safety Council’s Head of Policy and Communications, spoke at a webinar organised by Idling Action London for its Engines Off campaign.  The campaign is calling for fleet operators and businesses operating in London to tackle air pollution caused by idling vehicle engines to protect outdoor workers and public health. Other speakers included Mace and Marston Holdings. You can watch the webinar here.

 

Air Quality Conference North

The Northern Air Quality News Conference took place on 14 September at the Midland Hotel in Manchester.  The conference served as a platform for business, local authorities and the third sector to learn and network as an industry. Speakers included Imperial College and the Environment Agency. British Safety Council had a stand at the event and sponsored the post-event reception as part of its Time to Breathe campaign.

 

Legal action against the Government

Law firm Hausfeld is working with environmental law charity ClientEarth to explore a possible new kind of legal action against the UK Government for failing to ensure everyone living in the UK can breathe safer, cleaner air.

 

Both parties believe that individuals who are suffering as a result deserve justice and the chance to push for change. They want to make sure that people whose lives have been impacted by the toxic legacy of dirty air are compensated for the harm they have suffered and can push for action to better protect them and others going forward. But for that, they need people to come forward with their stories. They’re looking for individuals to hold the UK Government responsible for the real-life impacts of air pollution. If you have suffered from health problems such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancers (lung and bladder cancers), heart attacks and heart failures or strokes – or have otherwise been impacted by air pollution – you may be able to help. For further information see here.

Legislation update

Parliament returned from summer recess on 6 September. The Government announced on 7 September that the Chancellor will deliver a three-year Whitehall-wide Spending Review and the Budget on Wednesday 27 October. The Spending Review sets out the budgets for each government department.

 

Environment Bill

The Bill is currently being considered by the House of Lords. It is in the report stage during which amendments can be tabled and voted on.  BSC, along with the Healthy Air Campaign, has supported an amendment tabled by Baroness Hayman of Ullock, to establish a legal limit for PM2.5 that is equal to or stricter than the current World Health Organization limit. The amendment was agreed. A third day of report stage is scheduled for 13 September. The immediate next stage will be a third reading.

 

UK regulation post Brexit

The Brexit Minister, David Frost, has announced the Government is reviewing all EU laws still on the statute book. He also signalled that Britain intends to diverge from EU rules on data protection, gene-edited organisms, clinical trials, medical devices and vehicle standards — potentially setting the UK on a collision course with Brussels.

 

Separately, Ministers have unveil plans to make it legal again for market stalls, shops and supermarkets to sell their goods using the imperial system.

 

‘Principles of effective regulation’ report

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published the above titled report on 15 September. The report highlights that the UK’s regulatory landscape is complex, with a wide range of regulators and other bodies responsible for the regulation of different sectors. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has over-arching responsibility for regulatory policy across Government and aims to ensure the UK has the right regulatory frameworks to help meet business and consumer needs; and to reform regulatory approaches to support innovation and productivity.

 

The PAC concluded that:

  • BEIS and regulators have been slow to follow best practice in facilitating innovation
  • Regulators may fail to protect citizens, businesses, and the environment if they do not successfully adapt to major changes in their sectors
  • Regulatory bodies do not have a good enough understanding of the costs and benefits of regulation, risking value for money
  • Outcomes-based regulation comes with benefits, but also presents challenges for regulators in measuring their influence and compliance by industry.

 

The PAC report made several recommendations, including that:

  • BEIS should consult with regulatory bodies and wider stakeholders on how to ensure robust analysis of regulatory costs and benefits is built into regulatory policy design and evaluation
  • Government and regulators should work together to ensure that regulatory frameworks are responsive, and that regulators themselves are well equipped, to be able to match the challenges and opportunities provided by the UK’s departure from the EU
  • Government should require regulators to engage meaningfully with businesses to explore potential new ideas and innovations and adopt regulatory sandbox type approaches, in a way that does not hinder regulatory objectives or create undue risk
  • BEIS should identify what has facilitated effective regulatory cooperation during the COVID-19 pandemic and disseminate findings to the regulatory community to ensure good practice is embedded and learning is not lost.

 

New law to stop employers hiding behind gagging orders

Maria Miller, a senior Conservative MP, has proposed a law that would stop employers using gagging orders to silence victims of sexual harassment. Miller, who chairs the select committee on women and equalities, said employers were being allowed to ‘conceal unlawful wrongdoing’ through the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

 

Such contracts are intended to prevent former employees leaking confidential or sensitive information, but Miller warned they were also being used to ‘silence the disclosure of wrongdoing experienced at work’. She commented further that NDAs were ‘driving the wrong culture in the British workplace – a culture where poor management can be covered up and where the silence of employees who have experienced significant wrongdoing can effectively be purchased, even motivating a small number of employees to vexatiously seek pay outs from employers by making spurious allegations’.

 

Miller warned that while the Government was aware of the problem, it had not done enough to tackle it and that Parliament must legislate now to ensure that everybody is protected equally at work under the law.

 

Cabinet reshuffle

On 15 September, the Prime Minister made some changes to his top team – the main ones are highlighted below:

 

Education Secretary – Nadim Zahawi (previously Vaccines Minister) replaces Gavin Williamson

Housing Secretary – Michael Gove (previously Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cabinet Office) replaces Robert Jenrick

Foreign Secretary – Liz Truss (previously International Trade Secretary) replaces Dominic Raab

Culture Secretary – Nadine Dorries (previously Mental Health Minister) replaces Oliver Dowden

Chancellor – Rishi Sunak remains in post

Home Secretary – Priti Patel remains in post

Junior Ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care - Gillian Keegan becomes Minister of State and Maggie Throup becomes a Minister

 

A full list of the changes can be viewed here.