Unions sound alarm over leaked coronavirus plan to get UK back to work

Unions have reacted with anger to leaked UK government guidance on reopening the economy, warning that the health of workers is being put at risk.

Draft documents covering seven areas of the economy suggest sweeping changes to the way businesses work, but union leaders claimed the measures would be largely voluntary and offered no guarantees that employees’ health would be protected.

Under proposals included in the documents, which cover settings like work in vehicles, hotels, warehouses and outdoors, builders and shop workers will be encouraged to communicate by radio rather than in person, while office workers will be barred from hot-desking or sharing equipment – covering everything from computers to pens.

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Staff should work side by side or facing away from each other, the guidance states, while those who have to work close together should be paired 
to limit the number of contacts.

Commuters return to work in Milan, Italy. Britain is facing a similar challenge to get employees back into work and to restart the UK economy. Picture: Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP

The guidance has been sent to unions and business leaders for consultation but must be finalised in the next few days, with a government review of the lockdown due on Thursday. Ministers say they want to “come to a shared view” about how best to protect workers.

Boris Johnson is expected to make an announcement on Sunday setting out the next steps to get the UK economy moving while preserving large parts of the social distancing regime.

Union leaders said they had “urgent concerns” about the back-to-work plans, with the TUC saying the guidance places no new requirements on employers to keep workers safe.

The organisation said there is no commitment from ministers to increase enforcement to stop companies flouting the law and putting staff in danger.

The guidance repeatedly suggests that “employers should consider” actions enabling social distancing or providing handwashing facilities, but also suggests individual employers can decide to ignore the suggestions, said the TUC.

Unions also raised the alarm over the lack of any recommendations on businesses supplying staff with personal protective equipment (PPE).

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Throughout this crisis the TUC has sought to engage constructively with ministers. But we cannot support the government’s back-to-work plans as they stand.

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“We want new binding rules for employers to publish their risk assessment and action plan. We want clear guidance to set out the minimum standards that employers must meet in order to protect public safety. And we want ministers to outline a new tough approach to enforcement.

“Unless the government significantly strengthens its plans, safe working will not be guaranteed.

“The current proposals fail to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly. And they are an open goal for rogue employers, who will cut corners and put their workers – and the wider community – at risk.”

Prospect union general secretary Mike Clancy said: “If the economy is to recover sustainably and safely then a return to work needs to be managed properly.

“The government must provide absolute clarity on how workplaces can operate safely, and it must set out the evidence for its advice.

“We all want to get back to work, but there is no point in easing the lockdown if the guidelines put people at risk, potentially causing a spike in cases and another full-scale lockdown.”

John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB Union, said: “Nobody is keener than GMB to get people back to work – but this guidance was thrown together in a hurry and it shows. Giving unions and employers just 12 hours to respond is not good enough and means crucial changes will not be made. We cannot endorse crucial guidance if it is incomplete.”

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Labour’s shadow employment rights minister Andy McDonald said: “Taking the necessary steps to protect employees is not a matter of expectation or guidance, it is the law.”

It comes as Tory MPs put pressure on the government to ease the lockdown to protect personal liberty and the economy.

Leading backbencher Steve Baker branded social distancing measures “absurd, dystopian and tyrannical”.

And during a Commons debate on the government’s Covid-19 regulations, Tory MP Marcus Fysh argued against the idea that “health trumps liberty”.

Speaking out against plans for a contact-tracing app, Mr Fysh said: “We’re not a people who take well to surveillance and it’s a little ironic that the country that has probably been surveilling its population more than any other appears to have been the source of this virus” – a reference to China.

Former Tory cabinet minister Sir John Redwood said it can be easy for MPs with a “guaranteed high salary” to dismiss economic concerns.

And Sir Charles Walker warned that “if hundreds of thousands of those businesses go under, or a million or more, we will unleash a tidal wave of human misery.”



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