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The Third UK Lockdown and Its Employment Implications

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​Clare Greatorex loves working as a complementary therapist providing reflexology, a therapy for the hands and feet to restore physical and emotional well-being to clients with a variety of chronic conditions. She had a room at a local shop called Body and Soul in Blagdon, England, and saw steady business from loyal customers. 

Then, in March 2020, the first COVID-19 lockdowns began in the U.K. and her work completely stopped. Through June, she was unable to work. But when restrictions loosened in July, her business boomed. 

“I was inundated with people, just because they wanted their well-being taken care of,” Greatorex said. Since then, her work has been a constant roller coaster of stopping and starting, depending on the government lockdowns in place.

“When I’ve been able to work, I’ve been really busy. And then the plug’s been pulled, and I can’t do anything,” she said. “I’ve only worked three months out of 12. … I’ve basically gone through the last 12 months with three months’ pay.”

Child Care and Feasibility of Remote Work

As the U.K. settles into its third lockdown, employees are struggling to balance work responsibilities, child care duties and mental health in the face of an uncertain future. Unlike the second lockdown, when schools remained open, this third lockdown more closely resembles the first lockdown when nearly everything was closed.

In England, everyone is required to stay home unless they have a reasonable excuse, and everyone who can work effectively from home is required to do so. Support bubbles and exercise with one person from outside of the household are allowed, and nursery school is open for children under the age of 4.

“One of the key pressure points for employers is how to respond to employees that are now juggling their work duties with home schooling and child care as a result of school closures,” said Verity Musselwhite Steel, an attorney with Seyfarth in London.

Employers are also weighing the risks of asking employees to come into work.

“Employers are having to really form their own assessments of whether it is truly necessary for their employees to attend the workplace, on the basis they cannot reasonably work from home,” Musselwhite Steel said. “There may be instances where employers would ideally want employees to attend the workplace to carry out certain duties, but employers are having to judge whether it is really not feasible for that work to be done at home.”

This includes employers asking themselves whether the telecommuting equipment or IT software they can provide will enable the employees to perform their duties from home, even if not to an optimal level, she said. Employers risk incurring potential liabilities where employees are made to attend work in breach of these rules.

Limited Child Care Opportunities 

There are opportunities for the children of key workers to attend school, which can be helpful, though juggling work and child care continues to be an issue.

Amy Smith works as a health visitor in Northampton, England. Before the pandemic, her work involved mostly face-to-face contact with families. Although some contacts have moved online, she is a key worker and still has face-to-face meetings. Balancing home schooling, work and her recovery from a December bout with COVID-19 has made this lockdown particularly difficult.

“Even though we are coping, the longer that it goes on, the harder it gets and the more emotionally and physically we become drained as professionals,” Smith said.

Because she is a key worker, her children can attend school on the three days she works. “It’s a godsend,” Smith said. “I’m very grateful for that, because I just wouldn’t be able to work otherwise.”

Nonetheless, her days off are completely consumed with managing her three children’s education. At the ages of 4, 7 and 9, they have different academic needs and require different types of parental support.

“I’m not getting the downtime that I used to get between my busy workdays,” Smith said. “I come back to work feeling like I haven’t really had much of a break. I’m tired.”

Workers’ Mental Health

Smith’s employer strives to take care of employees’ mental health, offering sessions with a psychologist and other resources. But more workers have had to take time off due to illness or to self-isolate after a COVID-19 exposure, and that has left the team constantly short-staffed.

The psychological toll during this third lockdown has been hard on Greatorex as well.

“The first time, after a couple of weeks or so, I had a plan and I got my head around it. You have to get on with it. But when it’s the third time, you think, ‘How much longer do we have to go through all of these and is there going to be any more?’ ” Greatorex said. “This time around, it made me feel lower than the first one because it was just another blow, personally, but also for my clients who I care about.”

Despite that, Greatorex remains hopeful. “I just keep holding on to the fact that, hopefully, whenever we have a bit more of a settled time, then people will embrace life and everything around them with gusto again, and want to do everything they haven’t been able to do for quite some time,” she said. “Maybe I will be busier. Who knows?”

Smith takes a tempered view of the third lockdown and the pandemic situation. “I think we’re in this for quite a while. I can’t see it changing imminently,” she said. “Obviously, the vaccination program is the light at the end of the tunnel, and I do believe that it will get easier. I can’t see it getting easier just yet.”

“I think people just need to see a glimmer of light, a glimmer of something positive, something hopeful that they can clutch on to,” Greatorex said. “When there’s nothing, it’s quite difficult to raise people’s spirits.”

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.

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