Ministers are poised to tell companies next week that employees can drop face masks, social distancing and other workplace measures put in place to minimise the spread of coronavirus.
It comes as Boris Johnson prepares to remove most of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England on July 19 and ditch the government’s “work from home” guidance for business.
Fourteen documents issued by the government since the start of the coronavirus pandemic about making workplaces Covid secure in England are due to be heavily condensed and published as revised guidance for companies next week, according to people briefed on the plans.
Employers across multiple industries will be given much greater discretion to decide on safe working conditions, added these people.
Last year the government drew up guidance telling companies to conduct health and safety risk assessments to safeguard against Covid-19 in offices, shops and other workplaces.
The guidance often went into exhaustive detail, such as saying that workers should not swap pens. Companies were also told to close canteens, keep lifts half-empty and avoid hot-desking.
The new pared-back guidance is expected to depart from the existing government documents by not asking companies to ensure employees wear face masks or observe social distancing in certain workplaces, said people with knowledge of the plans.
The revised guidance is due to require companies to carry out health and safety risk assessments, as well as provide advice on ventilation and hygiene, but leave employers to make many of their own decisions on appropriate measures to minimise Covid-19 in the workplace, including on the use of face masks and social distancing, added these people.
This will pose a dilemma, especially for businesses in retail and hospitality, given a split between those workers concerned about Covid-19 and wanting to maintain measures such as face masks and others who want to return to pre-coronavirus conditions.
“These issues will become less for government and more the responsibility of employers,” said one senior government figure.
One government official said the changes to the guidance to companies represented a “broad relaxation”.
On Tuesday the Cabinet Office held meetings with business leaders to give them the opportunity to feed into the updated guidance, and people on the call said that officials indicated that it would be “light-touch”.
The revised guidance on Covid-secure workplaces is not due to be finalised until after July 12, when the prime minister is expected to give the go-ahead to lifting most of the remaining restrictions in England on July 19, according to officials.
Meanwhile the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is preparing to issue guidance for companies planning to let staff operate from home as well as the workplace after the pandemic.
The guidance, drawn up with input from a task force led by the business department, includes principles to ensure employees are not discriminated against if they choose to work from home.
On Wednesday, government officials told the task force that ministers would not seek to legislate to make flexible working a default arrangement for employees, according to a person briefed on the meeting, but would instead rely on companies to adopt the position.
The Acas guidance will say if an employee asks about hybrid working then the company should consider the request, said people briefed on the document.
Staff should not be discriminated against if working from home, it will add, notably by missing out on training or promotion.
The Acas guidance will also acknowledge that employers may need to monitor staff working from home, but warn that “excessive monitoring” may breach human rights.
A government spokesperson said the “advice from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, an independent public body, is intended to help businesses identify the key existing legal and practical issues they should take into account”.
The business department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the guidance for companies on Covid secure workplaces.