The Government will lift most COVID-19 restrictions in England on 19 July 2021. You will no longer be instructing people to work from home if you can, and limits on public gatherings will end.
With COVID-19 rates still high and a population that is not yet fully vaccinated, this guidance aims to set out the steps you should continue to take to keep people safe, deliver an effective service and uphold our commitment to equalities and inclusion.
Issues covered in this guide include:
- Staying on top of guidance, infection rates and legal obligations;
- Keeping people safe in our offices and while carrying out engagement with the public;
- Making transparent decisions and meeting our obligation to ensure we are inclusive and provide equal access to our services.
Stay on top of guidance, infection rates and legal obligations
Although Government will lift most restrictions, we will still live in an environment where COVID-19 transmission rates could rise, new local outbreaks could occur, and national and local guidance could change.
Local Healthwatch providers, like all organisations, still have a legal duty of care towards their staff, volunteers and the public you engage. It is also important that you do all you can to protect the Healthwatch brand and maintain your community's trust.
Key Government recommendations
- A cautious approach whilst the prevalence of COVID-19 remains high.
- Organisations should follow the principles set out in working safely guidance.
- Make a gradual return to offices.
- Wear face masks in crowded areas.
- Minimise the number, proximity and duration of social contacts.
- Meet people outside or, if inside, let in fresh air.
- Use the NHS COVID Pass in high-risk settings.
We recommend that before making any decisions about gradually returning to your offices or carrying out a new face-to-face activity you:
- Understand and comply with the latest Government guidance and regulations.
- Continue to check on the current COVID-19 transmission rate in your area.
- Work with local partners, such as public health, to check there are no COVID-19 outbreaks in the services or communities in which you intend to carry out an activity.
- Take account of the concerns staff, volunteers and, the public may have meeting others face-to-face. This is particularly important for individuals who are highly vulnerable or may not yet be fully vaccinated.
Meeting our equalities duties
It's crucial not to forget our public sector equalities duty. Local Healthwatch is legally required to consider how our policies and decisions affect people who are protected under the Equalities Act.
Therefore, it's important to think about how you can remove or minimise barriers that might prevent people from accessing our services and getting involved in our work.
We would recommend:
- Reviewing your policies and practices to ensure you do not unintentionally stop people from accessing your service.
- Taking practical steps to improve access - for example, by enabling people to join your public meetings virtually.
You can find further information in our guide to running a local Healthwatch
Keeping people safe in our offices
- A gradual return to office working is advised, and organisations should continue to follow guidance on working safely.
- Employers will still have a legal duty to protect people from harm and manage risks to those affected by their work.
- Before people return to your office, it is important to carry out a COVID-19 health and safety risk assessment and ensure your workplace complies with any Government guidance.
Mitigations advised cover cleaning, ventilation, unwell staff or service users and communications.
It’s a good idea to check the Health and Safety Executive guidance on keeping workplaces safe. Support is also available on undertaking risk assessments.
- It is important to consider and be sensitive to the needs of individual staff and volunteers. For example:
- If a staff member is clinically vulnerable, employers need to make suitable arrangements to enable safe working. You should also be mindful of disability discrimination and consider requests for reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities or health conditions.
- Suppose a staff member is not yet fully vaccinated. In that case, you might need to consider alternative roles or changing working patterns if a staff member is concerned about returning to the office or travelling on public transport during busy periods. Citizens Advice have good information if staff are worried about returning to the workplace.
- Volunteers may feel unready to undertake face-to-face activities, such as street surveys and information and signposting. You may need to consider alternative roles if appropriate. We have shared examples of how local Healthwatch is working with volunteers remotely.
- Don't just think about your office environment. Also, consider how your staff and volunteers will travel safely to your office and whether they feel comfortable using shared cars or public transport.
- Many local Healthwatch have found using team meetings to work through different scenarios with staff and volunteers helpful.
- We would also advise checking that any actions you are planning comply with the terms of your public and employers’ liability insurance to protect the organisation in the event of a claim.
Keeping safe while carrying out our activities
Before undertaking any new activities, it is vital to carry out a risk assessment with those involved in the activity. Risk assessments produced by other organisations can help you think about the questions you might want to ask. Still, we would strongly advise carrying out your own risk assessment to consider your services specific circumstances.
- The Health and Safety Executive has produced a template you can use.
We would recommend that your staff and volunteers:
- Understand the risks that you have assessed, the steps you have taken to make work safe and have an opportunity to discuss any concerns.
- Be given the protective equipment they need to carry out their work, such as face masks or hand sanitiser.
- Know the importance of alerting you if they have had any COVID-19 symptoms before coming to work or carrying out any face-to-face activity.
- Carry out a lateral flow test before visiting health and care services or attending community events.
- Consider the safest way to travel to work and face-to-face events, for example, by using their own transport rather than public transport.
- Wear face coverings, especially in crowded areas, to reassure the public and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
- Think about the precautions they can continue to take, such as practising social distancing and washing hands regularly.
- Understand that they might be asked about their vaccination status by the public and the services you visit and have an answer prepared. This is especially important as organisations may adopt the NHS COVID pass as a condition of entry. The legislation will require our staff and people to be vaccinated when visiting care homes in the future. The Government is planning to extend this requirement to more health and care services.
- Feel empowered to use their judgement to end any face-to-face engagement when they feel it is not COVID-19 safe.
Other issues to consider
Checking people’s vaccine status
From 11 November 2021, people visiting adult care homes in a professional capacity will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This legal requirement will include local Healthwatch representatives, when it is safe for you to restart your face to face engagement.
The 16 week grace period to get vaccinated has now started. For those beginning their vaccination journey, they must have their first dose by Thursday 16 September to allow the eight week gap between doses and ensure they are fully vaccinated by Thursday 11 November.
The Government will consult on extending this policy to cover more NHS and social care services. Given this, any staff and volunteers that will be visiting care homes will need to get an NHS COVID pass.
COVID-status certification will not be required in law as a condition of entry for visitors to other settings. However, in higher-risk settings, the Government is encouraging organisations to use the NHS COVID Pass as a condition of entry. So, if your staff and volunteers are vaccinated, you should also encourage them to get an NHS COVID pass.
Keeping safe attending events
The supporting guidance explores face to face events organised by Healthwatch and accompanying responsibilities. However, when it comes to our people attending external events and meetings in person, it is worth before an event:
- Requesting to see the risk assessment carried out by the organiser to ensure that you are confident that it will be safe for staff and volunteers
- Doing a separate risk assessment if Healthwatch is responsible for running activities at the event.
- Agreeing or understanding what approach is being taken when it comes to using the NHS COVID Pass.
Local Healthwatch are also invited to local authority meetings, which may need to take place face-to-face by law. The Government is currently reviewing this position to allow hybrid meetings to take place.
Making the clear and transparent decisions
You are already required to publish the process you use to make decisions about your work. However, we would advise updating this policy to clarify to staff, volunteers, partners and the public your process for approving face-to-face activity.
Questions you may wish to consider include:
- Where will the engagement be conducted?
- What specific communities are you speaking to, and why does this need to occur face-to-face?
- Do the benefits of face-to-face engagement outweigh the risks? Or can you use alternatives to talk to people remotely or use a blended approach to minimise any risks?
- Have you carried out an equality impact assessment?
- Have you assured yourself that you are not acting against Government guidance or regulations on COVID-19?
- Does your insurance policy cover you?
- Why does this activity need to happen now?
- Have you consulted all relevant stakeholders?
- Who will carry out the activity, and how will they travel?
- Has a health and safety risk assessment been carried out?
- What measures are in place to support safe engagement? For example, have you trained your volunteers? Have you provided safety equipment?