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The Briefing

NI businesses urged to follow local guidelines around return to office

by Aiken PR


A leading Belfast employment lawyer has warned Northern Ireland businesses must follow local guidelines, not those of Great Britain, when considering a return to office.

On 19 July, employees in England will no longer be told they have to work from home, with legal requirements on mask–wearing and social distancing also expected to be removed.

However, Belfast based commercial and employment lawyer Seamus McGranaghan from O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors has said firms here will need to abide by local COVID legislation or risk facing legal action from employees.

Commenting Seamus said, “Northern Ireland’s guidelines will be different than those in England from 19 July, and appropriate steps should be taken in advance of the return to offices, be it a phased return or a hybrid model. While the implications will not be relevant to all sectors, risk assessments will inform company policies around social distancing and mask wearing, with procedures in place in the event of a positive test.”

With a return to office also comes the issue of compulsory vaccinations with COVID jabs set to become mandatory for care home staff in England, and while Health Minister Robin Swann had said there are no such plans in NI, there are cases of employers outside of health and social care imposing strict rules on staff.

“We have seen cases in England where only those employees who have been vaccinated can return to the office. Careful consideration is therefore needed around staff inoculations and the equality issues that may arise. These include sex discrimination for pregnant employees, disability discrimination for someone unable to take a vaccine due to medical reasons and religious or philosophical belief due to contents of vaccines,” said Seamus.

In June 2021, O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors and Legal Island conducted a survey of HR professionals revealing the percentage of firms who have consulted on a hybrid working model. Of those polled, 42% have begun consulting on a permanent hybrid model, while 48% have plans to consult but have not yet started. The remaining 12% said hybrid is not feasible for their sector, indicating the different implications for different sectors.