If businesses are to avoid the threat of reputational damage or being sued, they should have measures in place to ensure all customers, including those who feel particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, can enjoy their experiences in as safe an environment as possible. For example, the likes of theatres and cinemas need to try to tailor their services and performances to individuals living with immune-suppressed conditions, or those who feel particularly anxious about being exposed to the virus and whose mental health is being impacted as a result.
We are generally used to thinking about the requirements of the Equality Act in terms of how it protects employees. However, it is worth remembering that the legislation also applies more widely to organisations with equality obligations towards anyone using their services. While there are some obvious examples of this working in practice, such as ramped access for disabled customers or the increased use of signing on TV and live events, other measures that organisations should be putting in place might not be as clear.
The Equality Act says businesses must make reasonable adjustments to cater for their disabled customers and service users. Post-lockdowns, many organisations are already starting to put in place, or retain from lockdown, measures to ensure they comply with the Act and are seen as prioritising the health and wellbeing of their customers. Some shops, for example, are offering quieter times for customers who feel more vulnerable. Many cinemas offer autism-friendly screenings and will now also be looking to provide showings where numbers are limited, extra cleaning is carried out or where it is recommended that facemasks are worn to provide some protection from COVID-19.
While a lot of businesses are introducing such measures voluntarily and are keen to make sure they are on the front foot, we are likely to see some individuals and groups taking action by enforcing their rights. Charities which represent people with immune-suppressed conditions, such as kidney disease, will become increasingly vocal if they feel their needs are being overlooked. And just last month Silent Witness star Liz Carr – a wheelchair user who is one of the UK’s best-known disabled actors – suggested that theatres host separate performances for audiences who still want to wear facemasks or socially distance.
The reality is that, legally, businesses have to make reasonable adjustments to cater for their disabled customers. That includes thinking in advance of common requirements, and reacting fairly to any specific requests. Organisations that do not take the required steps could face claims from customers for financial loss or for an “injury to feelings” award. People have six months from the date of any incident happening to raise a legal claim and typically compensation could start in the region of £1,000 and upwards. What is generally more significant for the organisation is the long-term reputational damage they can suffer, especially as we know such issues can quickly generate social media attention.
I would therefore urge all organisations to take steps to ensure they are not leaving themselves open to accusations of failing to meet the requirements of the Equality Act in terms of how they treat their customers.
Elouisa Crichton, counsel specialising in employment and discrimination law at Dentons law firm.