England has entered its third lockdown in less than a year as coronavirus cases continue to rise. Here, Inside Housing runs through the most up-to-date government guidance for the housing sector
Last week, the prime minister announced that for the third time in the space of 12 months that England would be going into a national lockdown. Amid a surge in new COVID-19 cases, largely driven by a vastly more transmissible strain of the disease, people were warned to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contact with other households.
While many of the key elements of lockdown 3.0 carry similarities to the first lockdown imposed in March and the second in November, some updates and tightened guidance have been published in the past fortnight.
So for those in the housing sector who are keen for an update on what the current guidance is, Inside Housing has pulled together this helpful digest to outline what the current guidance for different parts of the sector.
From rules around moves homes, guidance on people working in homes and the latest on the eviction rights of private and social renters, here is our rundown of what the government is advising.
The government has issued guidance that states home moving is allowed during the latest national lockdown. Crucially, ministers have said the housing market can remain open, with individuals having to adhere to measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The advice said initial viewings should be done virtually where possible, individuals should wear masks and in-person viewings should be made by appointment only. Residents should leave their property when it is being viewed and should open all internal doors and ensure surfaces are cleaned after each viewing.
Removals firms and tradespeople are still able to work and the government has advised them to follow its ‘safer working the home’ guidance.
For rental properties, the government said necessary repairs, gas and electrical safety checks should be conducted in the period between a property being vacated and a new tenant moving in.
Social landlords have been urged to discuss with applicants and tenants their state of health and level of vulnerability. The government said landlords should avoid moving tenants who are showing symptoms of coronavirus or self-isolating.
Advice published on Thursday also warned landlords that some tenants may be anxious about moving at this time and urged them to “ensure they are not put under undue pressure to move if they are not ready or able to do so”.
The government acknowledged that measures put in place to combat coronavirus are likely to make it difficult to process Right to Buy applications within statutory timescales and said landlords should consider how to manage the application process. It said this could include options around “valuations of properties, fraud preventions measures, the issuing of documentation and using the discretion provided to them within the legislation”.
The government has also said that it reserves the right to freeze the housing market if the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.
Government guidance on working in other people’s homes has remained mostly unchanged with the reimposition of national lockdown back in November.
Tradespeople are still able to work in other people’s homes “where it is necessary”. The exception is workers classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, who are being told to stay home. Employers are being urged to consider whether these people can take an alternative role or working patterns to allow them to work from home before using the furlough system.
Risk assessments should continue to be carried out, according to the guidance, while general measures such as social distancing between both workers and householders, hand washing and surface cleaning should be taken. Work that has to be done by more than one person should be carried out in “fixed teams” to limit contact with different people.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) will only provide “extremely limited” additional protection to these steps, the guidance adds, while face coverings “are not a replacement for the other ways of managing risk”.
The guidance also includes a number of more specific measures to limit the risk of spreading COVID-19 when working in other people’s homes. For example, sharing of pens and other objects should be avoided and loud music or broadcasts which may encourage shouting should not be played.
Where it is not possible to maintain social distancing while working in a home, “then extra attention needs to be paid to equipment, cleaning and hygiene”, the guidance states.
Whatever measures are in place to limit the risk should be clearly communicated to residents, it adds.
Government guidance on rental properties now makes it clear that no eviction notices are to be served to tenants until 21 February, following the government’s extension of the Christmas truce last week.
The government is also encouraging landlords to consider other options to resolve disputes before taking action through the courts. This could be by offering repayment plans to tenants in arrears.
“We strongly advise landlords not to commence or continue eviction proceedings during this challenging time without a very good reason,” the non-statutory guidance said.
As part of the announcement last week, a new tenants–landlord mediation pilot is now being introduced, which is looking to set up mediation meetings so that processes such as payment plans can be set up before cases go through the courts.
Bailiffs are currently banned from enacting possession action and there is not ban on possession cases being brought forward to courts, as there was between March and September last year. Orders can still take place but landlords will be required to give six-month notice periods and the courts will prioritise egregious cases, such as anti-social behaviour, illegal occupation or for perpetrators of domestic abuse.
The guidance also stresses that landlords can carry out repairs and safety inspections, provided these are undertaken in line with public health advice, pointing to Health and Safety Executive guidance on gas checks.
It said: “Landlords should not suspend all gas safety checks at this time as it will unnecessarily put tenants at increased risk, particularly as people are spending most, and in some cases all, of their time at home.
“Landlords and contractors can now carry out routine repairs and inspections in households with clinically extremely vulnerable occupants, as long as this is permitted under any tier restrictions in place in their area.”
But the government warned that landlords should be aware that some tenants will still want to exercise caution when carrying our repairs and checks and should respect this when engaging with tenants.
The government has said that homeless hostels and night shelters can open during the third national lockdown, so long as they adhere strictly to the principles of social distancing and self-isolation. There is particular concern about the homeless population, since many are likely to be clinically extremely vulnerable to coronavirus.
Guidance for hostel providers and commissioners is that residents and staff should be assessed daily for the main symptoms of COVID-19. Where it is not possible for individuals to self-isolate when required, hostels are advised to apply “cohorting” – where residents with confirmed COVID-19 are kept in one area of the hostel and residents without symptoms in another.
People who share sleeping space, bathrooms and kitchens should be considered a household for the purposes of contact limiting, it adds. Clinically extremely vulnerable people should be prioritised for single rooms.
Separate guidance for rough sleeper night shelters was published in October which stated that these settings present coronavirus risk and so “should only be used as a last resort to protect against the risk to health and life of individuals”, for example in very cold weather.
The guidance has remained substantially unchanged with the advent of the new lockdown. Anyone with signs of COVID-19, recent contact with a confirmed case, in a clinically extremely vulnerable group or recently arrived from countries on the quarantine list must not enter a night shelter and instead be found alternative accommodation with facilities for self-isolation, the guidance said.
In the event of an outbreak in a hostel or night shelter – defined as two cases confirmed within 10 days of each other – providers should seek help from their local health protection team.
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