Groups representing UK business and workers have blasted the government’s plans to ease coronavirus lockdown rules, complaining that crucial details on how companies should prepare for a safe return to work are missing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday announced that restrictions on exercise and local travel would be eased after six weeks of lockdown. Workers in some industries, such as construction and manufacturing, are being encouraged to return to their jobs.
“We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must. We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work,” Johnson said during a televised address from 10 Downing Street.
The UK government later published further details on which sectors of the economy are allowed to reopen on Wednesday, adding food production, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories. Hospitality and nonessential retail businesses will remain closed, the government said in a 50-page report.
Yet labor unions urged caution, saying many people won’t be able to get to work if they also follow the government’s recommendation to avoid public transportation.
“Lots of working people will feel anxious and confused after listening to Boris Johnson,” Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, wrote on Twitter, noting that the government hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe.
“So how can the [prime minister] — with 12 hours’ notice — tell people to go back to sites and factories? It’s a recipe for chaos,” added O’Grady, whose organization represents 48 trade unions and 5.5 million workers.
Several business lobby groups have also called for clarity from the government on how the revised rules should be applied.
Richard Burge, CEO of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, advised businesses in the British capital to keep their employees at home. “You have not been given sufficient information on how to get your employees safely to work, nor how to keep them safe while they are there,” he said in a statement Sunday.
In its report, the government said it would issue new safety guidelines for workplaces and travel later this week. People will be advised to use face coverings in enclosed public spaces, such as on public transportation and in some shops.
Figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics also published on Monday found increased rates of coronavirus-related deaths among men working in low-skilled jobs, including taxi and bus drivers, chefs and sales assistants.
GMB, a union that represents workers in sectors including retail, security and social care, described the figures as “horrifying.”
“Ministers must pause any return to work until proper guidelines, advice and enforcement are in place to keep people safe,” the union’s acting general secretary, John Phillips, said in a statement.
Moves to restart certain industries follow a warning last week from the Bank of England that the UK economy could shrink by 14% in 2020, its worst contraction in 300 years. The government is already paying salaries for more than 6 million workers affected by the shutdown.
In a radio interview with the BBC, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declined to answer whether employees would be able to refuse to work if they did not feel secure, saying “it’s very difficult to answer that hypothetically.”
There are also mixed messages coming out of the nations that make up the United Kingdom, adding to the sense of confusion among business and workers.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have extended their lockdowns to May 28 and officials from all three nations said there had been no coordination with the UK government over its new messaging, which advises people to “stay alert” rather than “stay home.” Authorities outside England said they would continue to recommend their citizens stay home.
“Businesses will need to see detailed plans for the phased easing of restrictions, coordinated with all nations across the UK and supported by clear guidance,” director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, Adam Marshall, said in a statement. “It is imperative that companies have detailed advice on what will need to change in the workplace, including clarity on the use of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment],” he added.
— Angela Dewan, Nada Bashir, Max Ramsay, Ivana Kottasova and Charles Riley contributed reporting.