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Should I continue to carry out housing inspections during the coronavirus outbreak?

As the pandemic progresses, more and more people will be forced to self-isolate and, inevitably, both tenants and staff will be affected. Put plans in place to mitigate the impact that this may have, particularly regarding staff shortages. The most important focus here should be communication.

The Covid-19 outbreak will affect the pace of everyday life and delays will be expected. Rather than allowing the pandemic to take over completely, it is important to maintain open communication with tenants as much as possible and inform them of any front-facing challenges that you may face.

The Protocol does envisage that delays may occur and allows for some degree of flexibility. Whilst all efforts should be made to conduct inspections where practical and possible, it should be expected by all parties that timescales will be extended during this crisis. It is fundamental, however, that all changes made to standard practice are communicated and explained to tenants to manage expectations.

Similar flexibility should be afforded to tenants. As households are required to isolate it will not always be possible to gain access to properties as would usually be expected and required. Likewise, vulnerable people will wish to protect themselves and their families and may refuse access on this basis. During this period, a degree of understanding must be exercised and concessions made.

Inspections may be delayed if anyone in the household has  symptoms. A questionnaire should be prepared for those visiting properties to assess so far as possible the risk; Personal Protective Equipment should be issued to those visiting, and government guidelines followed.

Related FAQs

How does Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme operate?
  • Certain workers will become “furloughed workers”.
  • Furloughed workers cannot carry out any work for their employer while designated as furloughed, or a linked or associated organisation but they can do voluntary work as long as they are not providing services for or generating revenue for the employer or a linked or associated organisation.
  • A furloughed worker can be furloughed part time and work the rest of the time.
  • The furlough period begins when the employee stops work, not when agreement is reached.
  • If furloughed employees are expected to do online training while furloughed they must receive the National Living Wage/National Minimum Wage for the time spent training.
  • Workers must be told of and agree to this change in writing. This written agreement must be kept for five years as part of the scheme. The guidance has confirmed that collective agreement reached between an employer and a trade union on furloughing staff is acceptable for the purposes of making a claim under the scheme.
  • However it should also be noted that this is a change in status and pay (if pay is not being topped up) and therefore subject to the usual employment law rules on changing terms and conditions.
  • Changes to the contract must be made by agreement with the worker and the government guidance is clear that to be eligible for the subsidy employers must document their communication with the employee on being furloughed.
  • You must confirm in writing that an employee has been furloughed, but that the employee does not need to provide a written response. Please note that this is for the purposes of making a claim under the scheme. Any reduction in pay must be agreed in writing under normal employment law principles and failure to do so may result in Employment Tribunal claims. You should not rely on a term in the employment contract to effect this change. We can advise you on how to document this properly.
  • Employers must also keep a record of the agreement for at least 5 years.
  • If employers have collective bargaining arrangements in place, they must agree this change with the union in the usual way.
  • Collective consultation obligations may be triggered if there are 20 or more employees that are proposed to be dismissed and re-engaged in order to effect the change to terms to be furloughed. You should take advice if you think this may apply.
Should you rely upon Statutory Demands issued after 1 March to present a Winding Up petition?

No. No action need be taken in relation to the demand but we would advise against presentation of a petition based upon any Statutory Demand issued between 1 March 2020 and the end of the restrictions. As you may be aware, with Winding Up there is no requirement to issue a Statutory Demand notice before proceeding so this is unlikely to create too many issues – click here to see whether you should issue petitions on other grounds.

There is nothing to prevent statutory demands being served at this time. However, there may be limited benefit as it cannot form the basis of a future winding up petition.

Which properties should I prioritise?

Some organisations are prioritising properties, known to be higher risk, such as properties with open flues, or near to the certificate expiry date.

Vulnerable staff and tenants need protection, safe working practices need to be established, and communicated. Organisations should bring forward servicing for people known to be vulnerable – but bearing in mind the guidance as to preserving the annual test date.

What should businesses do now?

Many will have worked collaboratively with their suppliers and customers to deal with the immediate public health crisis. This will have meant offering flexibility as to contractual arrangements, whether in delivery dates, volumes of goods or services supplied, or even in the specification of what has been delivered.

If this is the case, it is important that businesses now do their legal housekeeping and make sure they have a proper record of what has been agreed. Unfortunately, our experience shows that many legal disputes arise out of amendments to contracts, typically where the parties to the contract each have a different view about what exactly they agreed to change.

We would therefore advise businesses to review any amendments that they might have agreed either verbally, by email, or otherwise, and consider whether they need to be captured in a more formal way which will make clear exactly what has been agreed to be varied, and (where appropriate) how long that variation will remain in force.

It’s also important to remember that some contracts contain provisions that set out specific requirements about how amendments are to be made. For example, they might require that amendments are made in writing (rather than verbally). These “No Oral Modification” clauses are commonly found in commercial contracts, and the courts have recently shown that they are willing to enforce them.

Failing to deal with amendments in accordance with contractual requirements could therefore have a serious impact on businesses as they recover from the disruption caused by the lockdown. If they end up in dispute with a customer or supplier, a business could find that the contract has not actually been amended in the way that they think – potentially leading to legal costs and liabilities at the worst possible time.

Can you still have people on furlough leave full-time after 1 July 2020?

Yes. You can continue to fully furlough employees until 30 September 2021 (but from between 1 August 2020 and 31 December 2020 and from 1 July 2021 you need to contribute to the cost). If on full-time furlough, employees continue not to be able to undertake any work for you. As before, they can undertake training, or volunteer or work for another employer or organisation (if contractually allowed).