In early October, a Bolton law firm was able to reopen its premises after undergoing a deep clean and reducing its capacity in communal areas.
The recent incident of the law firm’s premises being shut by the local authority is a stark reminder to legal businesses to take Coronavirus health and safety precautions seriously.
Environmental officials closed the premises after employees’ family members contacted the authority to inform them that staff members were not being told that other employees had tested positive for Covid-19 and were also forced to work alongside those who had received a positive test result.
An investigation by the authority and Public Health England (PHE) revealed 18 cases linked to the firm. When officers visited, they found seating arrangements were not far enough apart and cleaning procedures were unsatisfactory.
It is important to note the law firm itself was not closed.
In September, Bolton was made subject to enhanced restrictions after reporting the highest number of Coronavirus cases in England.
A spokesman for the firm stated that it takes social responsibility and the health of its employees very seriously and takes issue with any insinuation that implies otherwise. He asked the council to amend its press release and said if the matter remains unresolved it was open to proceeding with legal action.
The spokesman added:
“It is incorrect for the council to state that the firm has been closed down indefinitely, The premises has been closed and not the business, as our employees are operating remotely from their homes and have been doing so a week before the council was even aware of any issue.
“We are a locally owned and operated business and are trying our best to operate under a very unusual and tough time. We have done or utmost to follow all the guidance (which changes daily and unexpectedly) issued by the government both locally and nationally.”
Although there seem to be inaccuracies in some of the reporting of the Bolton firm case, it is imperative that legal organisations, like any other business, ensure their employees are protected from the potentially deadly strain of Coronavirus.
According to the official government website, all offices must undertake the following actions to limit the spread of Coronavirus:
- undertake a Covid-19 risk assessment and share the information gathered with all staff
- increase the cleaning of surfaces such as desks and benches and ask staff to wash and sanitise their hands frequently
- unless they are subject to an exemption, visitors to the premises must wear face coverings
- ensure desks and seating are placed far enough apart for social distancing
- introduce a one-way system for walking paths used in the office so employees’ do not have to pass each other as they move around
- keep windows and doors open where possible and ensure ventilation systems run continuously
- if anyone has tested positive for Coronavirus or shows symptoms (high temperature, or new and persistent cough, or loss of taste and smell) by law they must self-isolate for 14 days
In a U-turn from the summer push to get people back into the office, the government has stated that those who can work from home over winter should do so. The Law Society Gazette has reported that many of the top law firms have shelved plans to slowly move staff back into the City following a tentative reopening by some.
However, there may be some work-based tasks where it is necessary to bring staff into the office. In addition, some law firm employees may find their mental health suffers if they are required to work at home. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are common among home workers; therefore, employers need to put measures in place to help people feel connected. These can include:
- Encouraging staff to talk over the phone or Zoom rather than constantly email.
- Ensure boundaries between work and home are established. Some firms have adopted an email footer stating, “Our company supports agile working, so please don’t feel you need to respond to this email outside your normal working hours.”
- Make sure employees can access the tools and files they need to productively work from home.
Where we are now
The strain on businesses of trying to keep abreast of ever-changing government guidelines is immense. However, from 28 September 2020, businesses that break Covid-19 rules can be fined up to £10,000. Therefore, it is imperative to keep up to date with the latest government advice and regulations.
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