Firms could be forced to fend off a wave of legal action from staff over health and safety rules and unfair dismissal as the country gets back to work, lawyers have warned.
Companies which suffer a Covid-19 outbreak at work could be hit with cases brought by employees for failing to protect them from the disease, while the likelihood that many firms will have to lay off staff when the Government's furlough scheme ends could also spark a wave of legal challenges.
David Greenhalgh, an employment consultant at law firm Joelson, said: “I think there will be a massive increase in claims because people will be losing their jobs on quite a wide scale.
"Lots of employers will not follow proper selection processes.”
Dismissed employees are likely to challenge employers where they believe mass redundancies have been used as an opportunity to get rid of staff who had already been earmarked as unwanted, lawyers said.
Employers could also face claims for breach of data privacy if they force employees to use the Government’s Covid-19 tracing app, for example.
Peter Finding, a partner at law firm FisherBroyles, said a widespread Covid-19 outbreak in a single workplace could lead to a class action-style claim by employees.
Disgruntled employees could also blow the whistle on bosses over poor work safety practices, which could trigger investigations and prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive, he added.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock this week suggested that employers could be slapped with sanctions under existing rules if they failed to keep staff safe.
Businesses are calling on the Government to be as clear as possible in its final guidance on what steps they are expected to take to ensure workplaces are safe.
Draft guidance for businesses includes recommendations such as installing plexiglass screens between desks in offices and putting one-way systems in shops.
Business groups are understood to have pressed the Government on whether personal protective equipment for employees could be sourced centrally rather than every firm having to track down its own face masks, gloves and other protective gear.
Mr Greenhalgh said following government rules will not necessarily be a "get out of jail free card" for employers, but would help firms to demonstrate that they are acting reasonably when telling employees to come back to work.
The heightened legal risk comes as companies grapple with the complexity and expense of getting back on their feet while still following social distancing rules.
Edwin Morgan, of the Institute of Directors, warned that adapting to social distancing will not be straightforward for businesses that are already running short on cash. There will be a cost linked to extra cleaning procedures and protective equipment at a cost at a time when revenues have been hit, he said.