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Varadkar hoping workers 'embrace blended working' as date for return to offices confirmed

Employers won’t have the right to ask about vaccine status, according to the Tánaiste.

Image: SAM BOAL; Sam Boal

A GRADUAL RETURN to workplaces can take place from 20 September, under the government’s new reopening roadmap announced this evening. 

Guidelines for businesses will be drafted in the coming weeks with the assistance of trade unions and business groups, according to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. 

Under the current guidelines, remote working is still advised wherever possible. 

Currently, the Government’s public health advice for managing offices and other workplaces during the pandemic is contained in the Work Safely Protocol.

Varadkar said this document will be revised with advice on how businesses can return to the office in a safe way. 

“We also want flexibility too because every office is different, every business is different. 

“One of the things that I think is going to be a permanent change pandemic is the workplace, and most people, I hope, if they want it, are going to embrace blended working. 

“We’d really encourage companies and employers that haven’t had that conversation yet with their workforce to do that now because there’s a date, the 2o September.”

Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said the return to the workplace will be facilitated by the return of public transport to 100% capacity tomorrow. 

“We need our public transport system back,” he said, adding that mask-wearing is still a legal requirement.   

Published in May by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Work Safety Protocol document was last updated in June.

Under the current guidelines, employers must, among other things:

  • Ensure that appropriate hygiene facilities and materials are in place to accommodate workers adhering to hand hygiene measures
  • provide tissues as well as bins/bags for their disposal.
  • and provide hand sanitisers (alcohol or non-alcohol based) where washing facilities cannot be accessed.

Employers are required to ensure that physical distancing is adhered to by using free office space “as much as is reasonably practicable” and organising workers “into teams or pods who consistently work and take breaks together”.

“Proper ventilation, for example open windows, should also be in place,” according to the Protocol.

Where this is not possible, the Protocol also provides detailed information on the use of mechanical systems including local air-cleaning devices Co2 monitors to assess air quality. 

Before bringing workers back on the premises, employers are asked to consider determining the quality of air within enclosed workplaces as part of their overall workplace risk assessment.

In response to today’s announcement, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions General Secretary Patricia King said the safety of workers must be the government’s top priority. 

“To help prevent the spread of Covid-19 these measures include adequate ventilation systems, including access to fresh air, to reduce the risk of aerosol transmission indoors in situations where workers may be in close contact for long periods of time and working in poorly ventilated areas,” said King. 

“However, this suite of measures will only prove effective if employers are required to implement them.”

Vaccination status

As it stands, Irish employers cannot mandate that their staff be vaccinated before returning to the workplace.

However, according to the advice in the Government’s Work Safely Protocol, employers can look to “redeploy” unvaccinated workers within the business if it is “deemed that an unvaccinated worker is not safe to perform certain work tasks”.

Speaking at this evening’s press briefing, Varadkar told reporters he believes it will be unlikely that employers’ will be given the right to know their employee’s vaccination status, describing it as “an invasion of people’s personal privacy”. 

“They can volunteer the information, but that’s a different thing to requiring them to given that kind of information,” he said. 

“If we make any exceptions, I think it would only be where people are working with very vulnerable people, perhaps in nursing homes and healthcare settings.” 

If we make any exceptions, it would be where someone is working in a vulnerable situation,” he said.  

Some legal experts have warned that employers could be leaving themselves vulnerable to legal complaint if they follow this advice when workers return the office from next month.

Speaking to The Journal last month, Karen Killalea, partner and head of the employment team at law firm Maples and Calder said public health advice may need to be updated to provide more clarity.

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She explained the Protocol “is largely silent, in terms of specific guidance for employers on how they should regard vaccination status… So when you translate that into the workplace, employers are simply not in a position to mandate that somebody takes the vaccine.” 

While “employers are absolutely entitled, and in fact, must have regard to public health guidance to drive their decisions on who comes back… at the moment, using vaccination status is not based in any current public health guidance”.

From the 20 of October, masks will only be legally required on public transport, in healthcare settings and in retail premises.

When asked about masking wearing in workplaces from 20 September, Varadkar said mask-wearing in offices won’t be required in the interim period. 

“But if it’s a crowded space, or people are walking around it’s advised that you do.”

About the author:

Adam Daly and Ian Curran

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