A virtual COBRA meeting is to take place today, in order to review the UK's damage limitation strategy and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

News reports are likely to be unwaveringly prescient in their predictions.  'Zero prospect' of much, if anything, changing at this time, is the earth shatteringly unsurprising headline.

The UK Government's Job Retention Scheme and associated measures are expected to be in place for 12 weeks. What does all of this mean for employers' responsibilities?

While many businesses have opted to furlough employees and take advantage of government funding, others have restructured work forces and mobilised teams quickly for home working, in order to continue to service clients.

For many, this will simply be a larger scale, more permanent — or at least constant — arrangement than what may take place regularly enough anyway in modern, office based environments. Some businesses will have turned to business continuity plans, which set out how emergency situations like the current crisis will be responded to.

Whether as part of a more-constant-than-usual pattern of home working or following business continuity arrangements, employers will be taken to have 'forseen' the need for home working.  

Based on the availability of support measures, and recent predictions, as well as the experience of other countries, employers here are on notice that this will continue for many weeks to come.

As the Health & Safety Executive puts it succinctly:  "As an employer, you have  the same health and safety responsibilities for home workers as for any other  workers."

The so-called 'Display Screen Equipment' regulations are particularly relevant here and we would urge all employers to give consideration to them. 

Unhappily named, they in fact cover all manner of obligations around workstations, including risk assessments; equipment; air flow; temperatures; training and communication. 

Ask yourself some basic, sensible questions. Has the information been given? Do my employees know what to do? Are they aware of the risks and how to adapt to those?  Do they have adequate equipment? Please don't forget the refresher point — when were they last told all of this?

Poor posture and equipment are key contributors to both repetitive strain and musculo-skeletal injuries. Twelve weeks (or possibly more) of that could well cause future issues,  absences and claims, just when employers need their workforces back and firing on all cylinders.

There are many other impacts of unexpected wide scale home working.  

Employers should consider how will you keep in touch with those workers? What work activity will they be doing (and for how long)? Can it be done safely? Do you need to put control measures in place to protect them? Crucially — what impact will this have on our culture?

In the darkest corners of life's tragedies, glimmers of light can always be found. 

COVID-19 has forced employers to restructure; to really use and benefit from remote technologies; to seriously rely on home working as the backbone operating model of their businesses. We have had the pleasure of hearing from many clients who are embracing this — from pet-friendly lunches to online group yoga with colleagues and, of course, remote meetings. 

Well, they do say necessity is the mother of invention.  Just don't forget that's not at the expense of health and safety obligations...