In the current pandemic, social landlords remain focused on providing support to their tenants to help them through Covid-19, whilst also meeting their statutory and contractual obligations as a landlord and employer. This balancing exercise is particularly relevant in relation to repairs and maintenance of tenanted homes.
As lockdown restrictions are starting to become relaxed, this e-bulletin draws together the recent Government guidance in relation to repair works, and also highlight some key practices to help social landlords keep up to date with recent developments.
This e-bulletin sets out the position as at 28 May 2020.
What has changed since the start of Lockdown?
At the outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK and the start of lockdown restrictions, our experience of working with social landlords was that they were legitimately unable to do repair works unless they were deemed an emergency in accordance with their relevant policies and processes.
On 10 May 2020, the Prime Minster set out an ‘exit plan’ from lockdown and actively encouraged people who could not work from home to go to work if they could safely do so. Following this, on 18 May 2020 Christopher Pincher MP, the Minister of State for Housing, sent a letter to all social housing residents in England. This letter addressed the issue of maintenance and repairs and stated: ‘‘As we start to ease lockdown measures, landlords should be able to carry out routine as well as essential repairs for most households’’. As a result of this, social landlords should expect to see an increase in correspondence from tenants and their solicitors requesting that works are done referring to the letter of 18 May 2020 in support of their case.
This presents a new challenge to our clients, to achieve a balance between carrying out repair works and the need to keep tenants, employees and contractors safe in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements.
Social landlords should adapt their response to dealing with routine repairs as it is no longer the case that such works should not be carried out. Risk Assessments should be carried out when determining routine repairs requests to determine if the job can be completed safely in accordance with the relevant guidance.
The overarching principles that govern risk assessments in relation to employees and contractors are contained in Sections 2 to 4 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Social landlords are reminded of those duties to their employees and contractors as they underpin the risk assessment process.
The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has published numerous Guidance and Support documents to assist people returning to work during Covid-19. In relation to repair works, the following guidance is of particular relevance:
When carrying out risk assessments for day to day repair works, Covid-Secure considerations will include:
- Whether a two metre distance can be applied inside vehicles and at depots. It will often be the case that it cannot, as vehicles are limited in size and often contain two or more operatives. Therefore, the methods of transport for operatives could be reviewed. Social landlords may need to amend their policies to allow the use of an operative’s own vehicle to travel to and from a job if meeting a colleague in a van with the equipment at the job site
- Whether the work can be carried out by workers remaining two metres apart. Our clients will be well aware of the frequency and need for jobs that require two or more operatives working in close proximity and therefore consideration of the practicalities for each job must be given
- If the two metre principle cannot be adhered to - either in the vehicle or in the property – whether the transmission risk can be managed in some other way. This could include the use of screens, staggering arrival and departure times of operatives, or restructuring teams so that small teams of operatives are ‘paired’ together to undertake frequent types of repair work
- Will employees and contractors be provided with the correct Personal Protective Equipment and cleaning equipment for themselves and their equipment
- Whether or not meetings between operatives to discuss the works can take place outside and/or away from the property following an inspection, and
- Whether any operatives are vulnerable to Covid-19 transmission.
In addition to considering the risks for the operatives, consideration must also be given for the property itself and its occupiers. Covid-secure considerations in this regard include:
- If any member of the household has symptoms or is shielding, work should not be carried out
- If a member of the household is clinically vulnerable, but is not shielding, then arrangements should be made for the vulnerable household members to avoid face to face contact with operatives
- Whether or not a two metre distance can be kept in an occupied household between individual operatives and individual occupants
- Communication with the occupiers prior to visits to discuss the health and welfare of household members and how the work will be carried out at minimum risk to all concerned.
Social landlords are now actively encouraged to undertake risk assessments for each repair request and ensure their record-keeping in relation to such assessments is clear and robust. In addition, social landlords are advised to have appropriate policy and procedures in place to assist with risk assessments being carried out at ease and with speed. Whilst the purpose of a risk assessment is fundamentally to assess whether a job can be undertaken safely in the current environment, it can also serve as evidence as to why repair works could not be completed in a Covid-Secure manner.
Many social landlords have to deal with legal claims from tenants seeking damages for disrepair. In the current climate, it is likely that some tenants will seek to argue that their landlords did not undertake works quickly enough, when they could have been undertaken earlier in a Covid-Secure manner. An important part of the landlord’s defence will be to evidence that the works were carefully considered as part of the risk assessment process, and that it was correctly concluded that the works could not be done safely at the time. Risk assessment documentation is therefore likely to be an important part of the disclosure process that will influence the process of determining damages in the County Court and in settlement negotiations.
We are also aware that a number of social landlords are taking steps to re-implement day-to-day repairs. However further delays are likely to occur in this respect, as a result of potentially unforeseen issues such as a lack of availability of materials and contractors awaiting the return of staff from furlough. Social landlords should ensure that appropriate records are also kept in respect of issues such as these, which may impact upon when repairs can physically be undertaken and which may therefore need to be evidenced in Court or in negotiations on pre-action disrepair claims.
How can we help?
Our national Housing Management team continues to track Covid-19 developments closely and we continue to support our clients as they navigate a rapidly-evolving operating environment. If you would like advice or to discuss any of these issues with us, please feel free to contact a member of our team.
For further support and advice relating to the impact of COVID-19, please view our COVID-19 Advisory Service page.