On 22 October 2021 the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Leo Varadkar TD, published an updated Work Safely Protocol. This is the fourth revision since the Protocol was first published in May 2020 and follows shortly after the third revision that was published on 17 September 2021. It is based on recent public health advice received by the Government and follows the Government’s announcement on 19 October that public health advice would continue after 22 October.
The Protocol sets out the minimum measures required in all workplaces across all sectors. It was developed in consultation with employers and trade unions through the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF). It is a dynamic document that is updated from time to time to reflect the most up-to-date public health advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and the Department of Health.
LEEF Guidance Note
On 20 October 2021 the LEEF published a guidance note which supplements the guidance set out in the Protocol and which has been incorporated into the Protocol. Covid-19 templates, checklists and posters are available on the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) website (link below).
Infection Prevention and Control Measures
The Protocol continues to provide for adherence to existing infection prevention and control measures (including hand washing, physical distancing, the wearing of masks in appropriate circumstances, and increased ventilation) notwithstanding the high levels of vaccination amongst workers in Ireland. It also reiterates the importance of self-isolating and getting tested on the onset of symptoms including for those who have been vaccinated.
Return to Workplaces
The Protocol reflects the current public health advice that returning to physical workplaces should take place on a “phased and cautious basis appropriate to each sector” for “specific business requirements”. The Protocol does not define “specific business requirements”, but indicates that a cautious and careful return should take into account “appropriate attendance levels, with the use of staggered arrangements such as non-fulltime attendance and flexible working hours, and that attendance is for specific business requirements.” It had been anticipated that the guidance relating to working from home would be lifted after 22 October, but this has not been possible in light of the deterioration in the public health situation.
The position in respect of vaccinations remains the same. Vaccinations are voluntary and employers cannot require employees to get vaccinated. The updated Protocol makes it clear that the core infection prevention and control measures referred to above should continue irrespective of the vaccination status of workers. The Data Protection Commission has made it clear that employers are not permitted to record the vaccination status of their employees except in certain limited circumstances (for example in the healthcare sector).
Takeaway for Employers
Many employers will have expected the majority of their workforces to have returned to work by now. However, it is now not expected that this will be permitted until Spring next year. In the meantime, employers are required to continue to facilitate working from home and hybrid working arrangements in many sectors. This area is one to watch with legislation giving employees the right to request remote working expected in the coming weeks.
- Updated Work Safely Protocol and accompanying press release: https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/a69d3-tanaiste-publishes-reviewed-work-safely-protocol/
- LEEF guidance note: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/a063d-returning-safely-to-the-workplace-updated-leef-guidance-note/
- Resources available on the H&S website: https://www.hsa.ie/eng/topics/covid-19_coronavirus_information_and_resources/covid-19_business_supports/business_supports/work_safely_templates_checklists_and_posters/