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Back-to-work protocol updated in wake of decision to delay wide-scale office return

Based on advice from NPHET, the Government has decided against scrapping the work-from-home advice.

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File photo
Image: SAM BOAL; Sam Boal

Updated Oct 22nd 2021, 3:45 PM

THE GOVERNMENT HAS updated the Work Safely Protocol to take into account changes to its reopening plan unveiled this week.

In August, it was announced that from today — 22 October — the advice for people to ‘work from home, where possible’ would be removed from the Government’s Work Safely Protocol, allowing for a more substantial return to offices.

But based on advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) about the current public health situation, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar announced on Tuesday that the remote working guidance would remain in place.

Since late September, workers have, however, been able to return to the workplaces for “specific business requirements” on a “phased and staggered basis”.

This can continue under the new guidance.

Employers are still required to maintain the five main prevention and control measures. 

“That’s the isolation of symptomatic people; face coverings; ventilation; maintaining social distancing, where appropriate; and covering coughs and sneezes and keeping hands clean,” Karen Killalea, partner and head of the employment team at law firm Maples and Calder, told The Journal.

According to the revised document, “a cautious and careful return to workplaces” should take into account:

  • appropriate attendance levels, cognisant of public health guidance as reflected in the Work Safely Protocol and associated checklists;
  • the use of staggered arrangements, such as non-fulltime attendance and flexible working hours, and
  • that attendance is for specific business requirements. 

Each workplace will still be required to nominate a lead worker representative “to work with the employer to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace”, according to the document.

The revised Protocol can be read here.

Full-scale return

The Government’s decision to keep the work from home advice in place after today means that many employers will have to delay plans to return to the office, likely until “next spring”, Varadkar said.

Speaking to The Journal before the revised document was published, Killalea said that very few employers and workers would have been banking on a full-scale return to the office starting today.
Consequently, she said the Government’s change of plan is unlikely to have “a very dramatic impact in the short term”.
But having spoken to several employers, Killalea said the “specific business requirements” condition is the key element of the guidance that is “confusing and frustrating” some.

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On Tuesday, Varadkar said, “Essentially, what we’re saying is that a staggered return to workplaces and the office is possible. So people can go back to the office for a specific business purpose — a meeting or training, for example, or inductions.”

Despite the Tánaiste’s examples — which were “helpful”, Killalea said — employers will want “clarification around what exactly is envisaged by ‘specific business purposes”.

Does that actually mean they need to continue with only ad hoc attendance at the office or is an employer within their rights to say, ‘Actually, I need this team back —not for a particular project or for a particular meeting or for a training schedule — I just need them back because I feel we need, after a year and a half of working from home, for everybody to be working together and collaborating.’ 

Amid a rise in Covid infections in recent weeks, trade unions and employer group IBEC welcomed the Government’s decision.

“Continuing with the staggered and phased return to the office is the right decision given current levels of transmission and hospitalisation, and the strain our healthcare workforce is under after 20 months of incessant demand on them,” said Patricia King, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

“This seems the most sensible approach to adopt with rising numbers of Covid in the community,” a spokesperson for the Financial Services Union told The Journal.

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