Three tips for housing associations managing in the three-tier system

Lee Buss-Blair, 28 October 2020

The introduction of the new three-tier system to manage local outbreaks of coronavirus across the UK presents some unique challenges for how associations can deliver their services to customers.

Maintaining operational delivery during this pandemic is a balance between protecting customers and colleagues from infection, while managing the myriad of challenges our customers face every day. Being too risk averse would curtail essential activities that could continue safely within the restrictions imposed, and negatively impact on customers. However, at the same time, failing to comply with the restrictions puts colleagues and customers at risk of being exposed to coronavirus. 

It’s important that we get the balance right.

Based on our experiences at Riverside, where we manage a broad range of services for people affected by homelessness, as well as services for older people across the country, here are my top three tips for working within the new tier system.  

1. Take the time to understand what each tier means for operational delivery

Areas that currently do not have local restrictions are in tier one (medium), and are under the pre-existing national restrictions, for example ‘the rule of six’. 

In September, the government advised that office workers who could work “effectively from home should do so over the winter”. In addition, “public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work where necessary”.

Based on this guidance we decided the tier one restrictions would not impact our short-stay services, the re-mobilisation of our non-accommodation based services, or our retirement living services. Visitors continue to be allowed and communal spaces remain open, as long as people meet in groups of six or less.

There are a number of reasons why we came to this decision. The guidance focuses on office workers, not on operational frontline services and the ability to work "effectively" from home. While non-accommodation and retirement living services continued to be delivered, they were seriously curtailed during the initial lockdown over March and April, and it was not possible for colleagues to perform their full duties from home.

Although we are not officially part of the public sector, our services are reliant on public funding, and for a large number of our customers, especially the more vulnerable, our services are absolutely essential.

Tier two (high) restricts people from socialising indoors, at home or in hospitality venues with people they do not live with. If an area moves from tier one to tier two, visitor bans will be imposed and communal lounges will be closed.

While restrictions allow for households to meet in private gardens, we decided not to allow visitors in the communal gardens of our services, because we want to ensure the continued safe use of the spaces for our customers. There are no further restrictions contained in tier two that have an impact on the way we work.

Home visits in non-accommodation based services can continue as before. The only reason not to conduct a home visit is if the customer has the symptoms of, or has tested positive for coronavirus.

Tier three (very high) introduces further restrictions and includes the closure of leisure and hospitality venues, with some exceptions.

There are no additional restrictions on work, and none that require us to make any further changes to operational delivery. While travel is curtailed, work-related travel is permissible.

2. Understand the risk for specific groups

The government rightly points out that extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk. For colleagues in the vulnerable and extremely vulnerable categories, we ensured this was central to their return to work and every colleague undertook a risk assessment to consider all of the identified risk factors. 

Any further reasonable adjustments were made in addition to our range of coronavirus-security measures including, for example, flexible working hours to avoid public transport at peak travel times.

Shielding advice has also been updated, though is not a requirement of any of the three tiers. People are not required to shield except in extreme circumstances, and only when informed to do so by the NHS. Shielding is not in place in any area at present.

3. Don’t forget the basics!

Always keep in mind that the risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if the health guidelines are followed closely. A key focus for Riverside has been to safeguard our work environments for staff and customers to ensure their ongoing protection. There is staff guidance in place covering a range of situations, including staying safe in offices and/or during home visits.

Social distancing is essential to prevent the spread of the virus. To reduce the risk of catching or spreading coronavirus, we continue to ask colleagues to keep at least two metres away from colleagues and customers where possible. Where it is not possible to interact with a customer at a two metre distance, our policy is that PPE should be worn.

We have also made it a requirement for colleagues and customers to wear face coverings in areas where maintaining a two metre distance is more challenging, for example when working in a customer’s home.

The rise in infections is, of course, alarming for all of us. However, thanks in a large part to the amazing adherence to the guidance by our colleagues and customers, we managed to avoid any significant outbreaks during the first wave. I’m convinced that with continued adherence to the guidance, we can weather whatever comes next.