COVID-19 support and advice

So-called ‘Freedom Day’ raises as many questions as answers

What does 'Freedom Day' really mean for charities in the UK? Jay Kennedy takes a look into how this day might affect you and your organisation.

It’s amazing how much can change in a year and a half – and it struck me the other day how we’ve become so acclimatised to life in this pandemic.

For me, as I suspect for most of us, my mask has become just another item to make sure I stuff in my pocket before I leave the house, along with the house keys, my wallet and phone (I’m running out of pockets to be honest).

In the supermarket I’m now programmed to slalom between the other shoppers, trying to stay two metres apart, apologising with a muffled ‘sorry’ should I need to squeeze past within one metre, or, God forbid, less. And I’ve somehow learned how to have very friendly eyes and exaggerated body language, to reassure cashiers that I’m not about to rob their till.

It’s such a bizarre existence, and yet has become so deeply engrained in our behaviours. How are we going to unwind this? It’s especially important to consider because we’re not out of the woods yet. Although the vaccination programme has proceeded faster than anyone hoped, cases are skyrocketing. People with certain health conditions for example may not be able to be vaccinated, and the prospect of ending restrictions fills many with fear rather than joy.

For charities and all other employers, important health and safety questions for their staff, customers and beneficiaries remain unanswered or unclear – and we’re likely going to have to proceed more on our best judgment, managing tensions and conflicts, rather than applying one-size-fits-all rules.

The rules have changed

For England, from today, the rules on social distancing, mask wearing, and numbers of people who can meet in homes and public places are lifted. The Government says we need to ‘learn to live with it and manage the risk to ourselves and others’, that ‘it is important that we all use personal judgement to manage our own risk’ and that we can ‘play our part by exercising common sense and considering the risks.’

But if you’re a cancer patient or otherwise immune-compromised, or not able to be vaccinated for whatever reason, what does ‘personal judgement’ mean in these circumstances? Sadly, probably continuing to stay at home, avoiding as much social contact as possible, relying on others to some degree for your immediate needs.

And how long will this last?

Is this an ‘irreversible road map to freedom’ as the Prime Minister once claimed, or could it prove to be a repeat of last summer, when society reopened, office work and social life returned to an extent, and then restrictions had to be increased again over the winter once another wave threatened to overwhelm the NHS? We probably need to hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Wales and Scotland are notably taking a more cautious approach. In Wales, rules on face coverings in public places remain in place until at least the next review point on 7 August, and are likely to continue beyond that. Employers and organisations will need to decide on the applicability of social distancing and other protocols as part of ‘taking reasonable measures to manage risk’ in the future. The Scottish Government says that ‘All major COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted on 9 August if the necessary conditions on vaccination and harm reduction continue.’ The regulations for Northern Ireland were last updated in early July, and are similar to what currently remains in force in Wales and Scotland – they will be reviewed again at the end of July.

Charities have tough decisions to make

Wherever charities are in the UK, an approach based on risk-assessment and risk-mitigation is likely going to be the right one at the next stage, even if it involves managing some difficult tensions or conflicts between the needs of different constituencies (for example between staff and customers, or between volunteers and beneficiaries). In this, adequate consultation and good communication are going to be key. The good news is that charities are likely to have more leeway now to create or adapt procedures to better suit their own circumstances, rather than having to rely on a one-size-fits-all set of rules.

The critical thing from a management and governance perspective is likely to be around showing that any assessments and associated procedures are robust, written down, clearly communicated and followed. So, if you’re a charity trustee, you need to be asking your management team what the plan is and when it will be ready by (or if you have no team, making plans to do this yourself, and carefully recording evidence of the process).

Guidance for your organisation

Many membership organisations or those which serve a particular constituency in the charity sector are now working to develop guidance to reflect the latest changes. We’ve included some available ones below and will update this list as more become available:

Charity Retail Association – Easing of restrictions in England guidance

Chartered Institute of Fundraising – Supporting safe and responsible fundraising

Distance Aware campaign – Provides tools to politely prompt people to social distance

#NotTooMuchToMask – Campaign led by the NHS Confederation and supported by many charities, with helpful tools