Welcome to our September newsletter.
As has been usual over the last few months, there is so much to report that, rather than having individual posts, I will try to summarise as much as possible that is relevant for SMEs here. Of course, much of what follows could change significantly in the coming days but I’ll try to avoid speculation and keep to the reported facts.
I’m writing this on Monday evening and I suspect that, as the alert level has increased to “4” (transmission is high or rising exponentially), the guidance set out below will be expanded. Tomorrow (Tuesday) there will be a cabinet meeting in the morning, Boris Johnson will address the House of Commons at lunchtime and it’s rumoured that there will be a TV address across all the main channels at 8.00 p.m.
North West local restrictions (including Merseyside)
With effect from 22 September, in addition to national guidelines (e.g. “the rule of six”), the following restrictions apply in parts of North West England including Halton, Lancashire (excluding Blackpool), Merseyside and Warrington:
- Apart from takeaway services, hospitality venues must only sell food and drink by table service. The venues covered include restaurants (including hotel dining rooms, cafes, bars, pubs, social clubs and casinos).
- The same businesses must, save for off-site deliveries, stay closed between 22:00 and 05:00.
- People must not host people in their homes or gardens, unless they are in their support bubbles (i.e. a household with one adult joining with another household on an exclusive basis).
- Exceptions include attending a birth at the mother’s request, visiting a person who is dying, fulfilling a legal obligation, for work purposes, education or training, childcare provided by a registered provider, in an emergency, facilitating a house move, providing care or assistance to a vulnerable person and continuing existing arrangements for contact between parents and their children.
As has been widely reported, fixed penalty offences start at £100 (reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days) and can increase to a maximum of £3200. For illegal gatherings of over 30 people “those who break the law” (not just the organisers) can be fined up to £10,000.
Less widely known is that it is advised that people should follow the following guidelines:
- Do not socialise with people you do not live with (unless in your support bubble) in any public venue
- You should not visit friends or family in care homes, other than in exceptional circumstances.
- You should try not to share a car with those outside your household or support bubble. If you need to do so, you should:
- Share the car with the same people each time
- Keep to small groups of people at any one time
- Open windows for ventilation
- Travel side by side or behind others where possible
- Clean your car between journeys
- The driver and all passengers should wear face coverings
- Public transport should only be used for essential journeys (e.g. attending work, essential shopping and obtaining medical supplies).
- You can travel outside your area. However, you must not meet with people you do not live with in their homes and gardens.
- You should only go on holiday with people in your household (or support bubble).
- You can still take part in organised sports activities.
- You should not attend amateur or professional sporting activities as a spectator.
- You can continue to use early years and childcare settings.
It is being reported this evening that these restrictions will apply UK-wide.
From 28 September those who breach self-isolation rules will be fined from £1000 to £10,000. However, those on lower incomes who cannot work from home and have lost income as a result will be entitled to a support payment of £500.
Significantly, those who can be fined (and more likely at the higher end of the tariff) include employers who threaten self-isolating staff with sanctions for doing so. Notably, those who do so and are fined will also have a criminal record as a result.
The Government is going to encourage compliance by:
- Making regular contact with those self-isolating via NHS Test and Trace
- Using the police to check compliance in the highest incidence areas and in high-risk groups
- Investigating and prosecuting high profile and egregious cases of non-compliance
- Acting on instances where third parties have identified others who have tested positive but are not self-isolating
Designated venues to display NHS QR code posters from 24 September
The rules relating to hospitality businesses have been amended to include a requirement to display QR code posters as an alternative way for visitors to check in. Therefore, in summary, the rules for hospitality, tourism and leisure and close contact businesses are now as follows. They must:
- Ask at least one member of every party of up to 6 visitors to provide their name and contact details
- Keep a record of all staff working on their premises and shift times on a given day and their contact details
- Keep these records of visitors and staff for 21 days and provide then to NHS Test and Trace if requested
- Display an official NHS QR code poster from 24 September, so that customers and visitors can check in using this option as an alternative to providing their contact details
- Adhere to GDPR
- Refuse entry to those who refuse to participate
You can obtain a QR code here. Notably, this page advises that the requirement applies to “a business, place of worship or community organisation with a physical location that is open to the public” and “an event that is taking place at a physical location”. For businesses operating from more than one venue, separate QR codes must be created for each of them.
Visitors will be able to scan the QR code using their COVID-19 app (also launched on 24 September). It will be possible to show the QR code on a screen such as a TV or tablet as well as on printed posters.
Non-specialist judges enlisted to help clear Employment Tribunals backlog
The number of outstanding tribunal cases has grown by 26% since last March and is expected to increase further following the end of the furlough scheme. The backlog currently stands at 45,000 cases and practitioners are routinely finding that hearings are being scheduled to take place in 2022.
The Government has therefore announced that a number of non-specialist judges are going to be seconded to help clear them, as well as increasing the number of virtual hearings and the range of administrative tasks that can be carried out by administrative staff rather than judges. It remains to be seen how the changes will impact on the quality of services provided.
Extension of the moratorium on commercial repossessions and winding-up orders
On 16 September the Government announced that the moratorium on commercial landlord sanctions has been extended to the end of 2020. The new regulations come into force on 29 September. Rent is still due to the landlord during the moratorium. However, where notice is served up to 24 December, there must be a minimum of 276 days’ rent due and from 25 December that increases to 366 days. Re-entry and forfeiture for non-payment of rent are similarly banned until the end of the year.
Existing COVID-19 provisions prevented the presentation of a winding-up petition based on a statutory demand served between 1 March and 30 September, nor present a winding-up petition between 27 April and 30 September based on a company’s inability to pay its debts unless the inability was not COVID related (very hard indeed to prove in practice). It has been widely reported that the deadline of 30 September will be extended in the coming days.
HMRC and Treasury statistics
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme statistics were stalled after 16 August and will now only be published monthly. The latest data is expected in the next few days. The same has happened for the Self-Employment Support Scheme and the other reports. The furlough scheme is estimated to be continuing to apply to 3m workers and there are reports that it may be extended, perhaps in a different format, for completely closed businesses such as nightclubs and certain sports venues and perhaps wider hospitality venues if they are re-closed, an approach which has been supported by the Treasury Select Committee. In recent weeks Germany, Belgium, France and Australia have all extended their similar schemes.
Latest forecasts suggest that the UK unemployment rate will increase from 3.9% to 7.5% by the end of the year. Blackpool, Birmingham and Hull are already recording rates of 10% (the infamous “1 in 10”). 695,000 jobs have been lost since March.
Proposals which have been suggested include extending the furlough support at 60% until next March. The Institute for Public Policy Research has suggested that this might save up to 2m jobs. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has proposed that furlough should be preserved for sectors such as hospitality, retail and beauty. Even the CBI has suggested that it should be preserved on at least a half-time basis. However, all the signs are that the Government will finish the scheme as announced on 31 October.
You may have read that HMRC is going to come down hard on those who have claimed furlough payments fraudulently or by mistake, estimated to have cost the Government £3.5bn. However, this represents about 10% of the payments made and Jim Farra, head of HMRC, has told the Public Accounts Committee that they estimated for an error rate of between 5 and 10%. He told the Committee:
“This will range from deliberate fraud through to error. What we have said in our risk assessment is we are not going to set out to try to find employers that have made legitimate mistakes in compiling their claims, because this is obviously something new that everybody had to get to grips with in a very difficult time.”
They will focus on clear fraud and will allow employers to check for errors and “repay any excess amount”.
City centres and office working from home
The preference for working from home shows no sign of abating. A survey of 4500 people conducted by Zurich Insurance has revealed that 59% of workers would still prefer to spend more than half their working week at home, notwithstanding recent calls, not least from the Government, for people to return to their workplaces. It’s been reported that Sadiq Khan wants to advise Londoners to continue working from home for the foreseeable future. It seems that, at least for office-based workers, working from home is going to continue as the norm for some time to come.
Further research by Huma has shown that more than half of office workers are reluctant to return to work because of concerns that they might catch the virus. Just 20% of employers themselves felt suitable informed about what policies and procedures they needed to implement to make their workplaces Covid-secure.
Footfall in more than 60 of the UK’s largest city and town centres was just 17% of the pre-lockdown levels in June and did not materially increase in August, based on mobile phone data. If, like me, you have visited city centres, you will have seen it for yourself. Train journeys remain at 33% of normal levels, according to the Department of Transport.
The most striking aspect of this change in behaviour is that many of the UK’s largest employers have reported increases in productivity rather than the anticipated decline. According to the ONS, in the first stages of the pandemic, around one third worked fewer hours than usual and one third worked more. However, as people have developed more efficient arrangements, productivity has significantly increased. According to a recent report in the Metro, 90% of those surveyed have said that the COVID-19 pandemic has removed barriers to working remotely. Of course, the news for city centre service businesses such as Pret, Greggs and innumerable newsagents and small general stores is grim, but all the signs are that there is a sea-change. Commercial landlords are also coming to terms with an average 18% reduction in their office rents, with many commercial tenants (particularly in the retail sector) refusing to keep their payments up to date.
Can I require employees to undertake tests?
Based on the recent news reports, COVID-19 tests are hard to come by. However, in the private sector, some employers are introducing workplace testing as part of their strategy. Employers with essential workers, e.g. in care homes, can refer their workers for tests, but, as has been widely reported, with less than satisfactory efficiency. Other employers have turned to private companies. So, what is available? The range of costing ranges from free, for those who are willing to sign up for apps on testing, to about £400 per person per test. BUPA’s antibody test costs £65 for onsite swab and waiting. However, they recommend antigen tests for companies looking to bring staff back to work, because these ascertain whether someone currently has the virus, rather than whether they have had it previously. Their current price for antigen tests is “variable”.
While there is a real probability that testing could become mandatory, as the law stands, it is probably unlawful to require employees to submit to obligatory testing. Home Secretary Priti Patel has recently suggested that she is in favour of large employers introducing mandatory testing of employees for the use of Class A drugs but, how shall I put it, this is just about as improbable as COVID testing. For example, regardless of what you think of their views, how would this go down with anti-vaxxers?
What about temperature checks?
Like me, you may have been subjected to temperature checks when entering certain business premises. Well, this is one that can be debunked fairly quickly. A fever is not significant unless the body temperature is over 100.4 F/38 C. However, this may be caused by colds, flu, gastroenteritis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, medication side effects, flu jabs, infections of the ear, throat, lung, bladder, kidney and, in children, vaccine shots and teething so it’s value in diagnosing COVID-19 is, to be precise, nil.
Kind regards and, as I say each month at the moment, best wishes during this difficult time.