Joseph Lewis
May 2020

What does the latest COVID guidance mean for the environmental sector?

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented thse world with the most significant period of uncertainty since the financial crisis over a decade ago. At times like this, it is as crucial as ever to turn to scientific evidence and the best-available advice on how to proceed, which is why it is so important that the UK Government issued further guidance this week as it prepares to move out of the first phase of its response to the pandemic.

Where can you find Government guidance?

There is no substitute for staying informed and taking guidance directly from its source. You can find the Government’s Recovery Strategy here, and the COVID Secure guidelines on making workplaces safe here. For full guidance on the COVID pandemic, see our updated list here.

However, we also understand that for many of our members, reading the full guidance might not be possible. We have therefore produced a quick summary of the key points, as well as what employers, workers, and the rest of the UK should expect to happen over this next phase. We’ve linked directly to relevant sections of the guidance to provide as much clarity as possible during this period of momentary uncertainty.

It is also important to remember that guidance may vary depending on what sector you work in and where in the UK you live. The devolved administrations are continuing to issue their own guidance, which may be your best source of advice if you live in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

What will happen next – for employers?

Many employers will already be looking at the Government’s COVID Secure guidelines for when and how to return to work, and many organisations will have already made their return. For those who have not yet put plans in place, the first step will be to seek out the most appropriate guidance for their situation and see what advice is available. The Government has split this guidance into eight types of workplace: outdoors (including construction), factories/plants/warehouses, labs and research facilities, offices or similar indoor environments, working in other people’s homes, takeaway/delivery restaurants, shops, and working in vehicles.

The general approach offered in the COVID Secure guidance documents is fairly straight forward. People should work from home if possible. If they cannot, employers should determine if their work is essential. If the work is essential, they are encouraged to return to work but only under strict measures to ensure safety and reduce transmission. These vary depending on the type of workplace, and the Government guidance gives specific examples of the challenges each might face.

Broadly, the goal of these measures should be to maintain standards of hygiene, reduce the use of shared workspaces or equipment, adjust working practices to reduce close contact between people, and where face-to-face contact is required, to ensure that it minimises the number of people in contact with one another and that contact which does take place is always between the same people, to limit the potential for the virus to spread. What this means will depend on specific workplace contexts, and should be based on each employer’s own risk assessment.

The Government has said that this guidance is informed by the best available scientific evidence of how to control the virus and keep people safe. There may be specific contexts, especially within the complex world of the environmental sciences, which the guidance is understandably not able to fully address.

In many cases, it will be necessary for employers to work with their staff to ensure that any decisions they make or plans they put in place take a sensible approach. They will need to rely on what the Prime Minister referred to in Parliament as “common sense”, though we may be more familiar with it as the process of evaluating evidence and making practical decisions grounded in that evidence.

What will happen next – for employees?

For the majority of our members, the outcome of these employer decisions and risk assessments will shape what needs to be done next. This process may be quick, but for some work contexts it may not be immediate. For those who are able to, taking this time to familiarise themselves with the guidance which applies to their work may help to ensure that they are fully able to comply with safe practice if and when they do return to work.

Some of our members will also be in the position where their work takes place on sites which are not run by their employer, for example conducting environmental monitoring. The guidance for construction and outdoor sites outlines how employers will manage these external visits, and there may be changes to how these visits are conducted to ensure that social distancing is effective. In particular, visitors to outdoor sites should expect staggered schedules, updated access procedures, and specific rules about contact on site. Communication between site managers and visitors will be especially important to ensure that everyone involved is agreed on how to stay safe during essential regulatory visits.

In all cases, the Government guidance has been clear that “no one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment.” If you are concerned that guidance is not being followed to make your workplace sufficiently safe for you to carry out your work, you should raise your concerns through the most appropriate channel. This may be through direct communication with your employer or the manager of a site you work at, through a relevant employee representative or trade union, or by using the Health and Safety Executive’s form for reporting health and safety concerns.

IES members who are currently being furloughed under the Government’s Job Retention Scheme may also be pleased to know that it has been extended to October. Concerns remain about the longevity of the scheme for individual employers, and what the long-term consequences of COVID will be for the environmental science sector.

What will happen next – for the country?

Part of the Government’s Recovery Strategy is an outline of when it expects the UK to move on to each stage of its response. It is important to recognise that these predictions have the potential to change as new evidence comes in, and the Government has rightly committed itself to adapting its plans as necessary to reflect sound scientific advice.

Currently, the roadmap outlines three phases to the Government’s response. The first phase was the immediate containment of the virus, which is the phase we have just completed. The next phase represents a gradual move to targeted measures for the control of the pandemic, which are divided into three steps. Step one began on Wednesday, and allows for increased exercise for those who need it, as well as the shift in the Government’s advice about when people should go to work. This has also led to changes in a handful of other measures, including the adoption of lockdowns for those travelling into the UK.

Step two is expected to commence on 1st June. It is expected to include the much reported return of schooling for Reception, Year 1, and Year 6, as well as some early years settings, with increased face-to-face contact for those in Year 10, Year 12, and some FE colleges. The Department for Education has offered specific advice about how schools should manage this phased return, as well as guidance for parents and carers. Education Trade Unions have questioned whether social distancing will be possible in practice, with concerns about increased risk of transmission if schools re-open. It is still possible that the Government will make further adjustments based on this feedback, and the final decision about how and when education resumes will be made as the situation progresses.

The second step of the Government’s second phase may also include the return of more businesses, excluding hospitality, personal care, and those which cannot safely carry out social distancing measures. Cultural and sporting events are expected to resume behind closed doors, and each household will be able to expand their ‘bubble’ to include another household who they can have contact with, following New Zealand’s approach to the pandemic.

Step three is currently projected to commence on 4th July, following the phased return of the rest of primary schools. This step would see the return of as many businesses as can be re-opened safely, including pubs, hairdressers, and cinemas. However, by this stage, we should expect there to be more evidence of the state of the pandemic, including how the earlier steps in phase two have affected the rate of transmission and the Government’s outlook, so the exact measures will still be subject to continuous review.

The Government’s goal is to reach phase three, which would see the use of vaccinations or other treatments to significantly reduce the risk posed by the virus, allowing a gradual reduction in any remaining measures. However, the Government acknowledges that this is still far off and that the possibility of producing a vaccine is not guaranteed. Despite this, the Government is taking four actions to reach this stage as rapidly as possible: it has created a taskforce to accelerate development and production of potential vaccines or treatments, is funding trials for therapeutic treatments, investing in manufacturing to increase the scale of production, and is taking advice on how to facilitate deployment when an appropriate vaccine or treatment is produced.

Much of the Government’s strategy for the country is still looking ahead to a time on which we cannot yet be fully informed. We should expect the potential for its plans to change, and for exact measures to be updated as the situation unfolds.

From the perspective of the IES, it is a time for reasoned scrutiny to ensure that the decisions which are made reflect the best-available evidence, and that environmental issues are not forgotten as the country focuses on addressing the current crisis.

What are the big questions the environmental sciences should be asking as we carry on?

One of the most important questions now will be how the UK, and the world more generally, recovers from the crisis and adapts itself for the future. Times of crisis have the potential to cause significant paradigm shifts, and it is vital that whatever changes arise from COVID leave the world in a position of enhanced environmental resilience, rather than weakening our collective response to environmental issues.

Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation has now resumed, and the Agriculture Bill had its report stage in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon. The IES has already highlighted the ramifications COVID-19 could have for the way the country views land use and food security, so this will be an important point of continued scrutiny as the Bill is discussed further. It will need to be considered alongside the usual careful examination to ensure that the best-available science underpins Government legislation.

The Environment Bill is expected to finish its committee stage scrutiny by 25th June, and the Fisheries Bill should soon have its own report stage in the House of Lords. For each of these, it will be equally important to ensure that environmental scrutiny is carried out with the same energy and focus as always, and that each issue is considered with the care it requires.

Another question to ask about the potential for a green recovery will be how the Government approaches its commitment to better embedding government infrastructure post-COVID and the task of rebuilding the economy.

There may be opportunities to embed net zero, decarbonisation, and long-term sustainability into the UK’s responses to COVID. However, there will also be challenges, and it is imperative that the recovery from this crisis does not cause a slip in protections which leads to a more extreme environmental crisis down the line.

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