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This is a fast-moving area and the paper should be read as correct at the time of publication (06.08.2020).

In late March 2020, the UK Government and the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each imposed ‘lockdowns’ in order to control the spread of coronavirus. Lockdown measures included restrictions on movement and gatherings and the closing of many businesses. The lockdown rules were implemented through a combination of legislation and guidance. As the reproduction rate of coronavirus has decreased across the UK, these rules have steadily been lifted.

As public health is a devolved matter and each of the four nations in the UK have separate lockdown regulations and guidance, businesses are re-opening at different times and in different ways.

This paper outlines which businesses are required to close and which can re-open. It also considers what steps businesses must take to re-open safely.

The issue of returning to work and the circumstances in which workers can refuse to do so is covered in a separate Library Briefing, Coronavirus: Returning to work (CBP-8916).

Which businesses are allowed to open?

Each of the four lockdown regulations initially operated in broadly the same way:

  • Food businesses (e.g. restaurants; bars) were required to close except for takeaways;
  • Many listed businesses (e.g. cinemas; hairdressers) were required to close entirely;
  • All retailers not listed in the legislation were required to close except for processing online or telephone orders; and
  • Specified businesses (e.g. hotels; community centres) were required to close except for carrying out certain permitted activities.

In Scotland, in addition to the businesses that were required to close by law, guidance said that all businesses had to close except for essential activities.

Whether a business can re-open will depend on whether the relevant rules have been lifted in the part of the UK in which the business operates. These rules are being lifted at different rates in different locations by the authorities involved. In England and Scotland, local lockdowns have been imposed.

What steps must businesses take to open safely?

Even if a business is legally permitted to open, it also has an obligation to do so safely.

Businesses owe a range of legal obligations towards their employees as well as to visitors, customers and anyone else on their premises or affected by their activities. The obligations arise under health and safety law, occupier’s liability law and the law on negligence.

The UK Government has published guides for twelve sectors outlining steps businesses should take to re-open safely. These are based on ‘5 steps to working safely’, including implementing hygiene policies and maintaining social distancing. In England, the guidance on 2m social distancing has been changed to ‘1m with mitigations, if 2m is not viable’.

This is only guidance and ultimately it is for each employer to undertake its own risk assessment. However, failure to follow the guidance would be a strong indication of an employer breaching its legal obligations, exposing it to potential criminal or civil liability.

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