Drop social distancing to get more civil servants back to offices, departments told

Guidance update "should support you to remove some or all of the measures associated with social distancing", Chisholm says
Photo: Kieran Cleeves/EMPICS Entertainment

Departments have been given the green light to drop social-distancing measures to get more civil servants back into offices.

Chief operating officer Alex Chisholm wrote to COOs across government last week saying changes to Covid-19 safety guidance could mean a “substantial increase in capacity” for ministries and agencies in England.

"In most cases, the clarifications to guidance should support you to remove some or all of the measures associated with social distancing that have remained in place in some offices from the early Covid phases,” Chisholm said, according to the Telegraph, which saw extracts of the memo.

"Depending on your risk assessments and the other mitigations you have in place, such as good ventilation, this could result in a substantial increase in capacity of the government estates and support increased levels of office-based attendance."

The email was sent after government Covid safety guidance for employers in England was updated to indicate a definitive move away from social distancing as ministers encourage people to head back into their offices.

The update, on 9 November, encourages employers to focus their efforts on measures such as cleaning and ventilation to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading, rather than keeping people physically separate.

While the previous update to the guidance said social-distancing guidelines were no longer in force, it noted that Covid could spread between members of different households and said employers could “mitigate this risk by reducing the number of people your workers come into contact with”.

The new wording instead suggests measures employers could take “if, based on setting-specific risk assessments, you decide to reduce contact in particular circumstances”. 

But it says the measures – such as designating seating for particular teams and installing screens – “should only be applied where practical”. This means they should only be used, for example, “without imposing restrictions on business operations or reducing workplace capacity”.

“You should consider the need for these mitigations in the context of other Covid-19 workplace mitigations (such as ventilation, regular cleaning of surfaces and the use of face coverings) you have put in place,” it adds.

The warning about transmission between households has been removed from this section of the guidance, which adds: “There are no limits on contact between people from different households including in the workplace. There is no government requirement or recommendation for employers to limit capacity.”

Elsewhere in the document, extra detail has been added on how employers can properly ventilate buildings, and managing risk.

Where previous guidance instructed employers to consider putting measures in place to to reduce contact between people who do not normally mix, like customers and workers, the new document tells them only to “consider whether to” take these steps.

The advice on ventilation aligns with the government’s campaign, launched at the beginning of the month, to “stop Covid-19 hanging around” by preventing the build up of particles in the air.

“The more fresh air that is brought inside, the more diluted any airborne virus will become. In poorly ventilated spaces, residual virus can remain in the air after an infected person has left and increase the risk of Covid-19 spreading,” the safety guidance read.

Commenting on Chisholm’s email, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Since the summer, we've been gradually increasing the numbers of staff in the workplace in line with government guidance to all businesses.

"To support this, government departments have been advised to carry out risk assessments to ensure Covid restrictions are eased safely and that, where needed, measures such as ensuring offices are well ventilated are in place."

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