Government's back-to-work guidance 'does not adequately protect workers from Covid-19 exposure'

Unions leaders have raised "urgent concerns" about the government's post-lockdown back-to-work plans saying the proposed guidelines are an "open goal for rogue employers" that would put workers - and the wider community - at risk.

The government has shared seven documents with employers' groups and unions that seek to establish how businesses and industry can reopen safely once restrictions are eased.

The draft plans are to be finalised in the next few days ahead of Boris Johnson delivering a "comprehensive plan" on Sunday where he is expected to set out proposals to get the country fully back to work.

But the back-to-work guidelines have been criticised by unions for a lack of clarity and enforcement powers.

Union leaders have warned that proposed guidance places no new requirements on employers to keep people safe at work and "provide no commitment from ministers to increase enforcement to stop companies flouting the law and putting staff in danger".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described consultation documents put out by the government last weekend as "pretty vague".

"I think people will want to know if I'm going back to work, is it a safe environment, what's being done about social distancing, what are the hand-washing facilities, if I need protective equipment am I going to get it?" he said.

Workers at a Five Guys restaurant in London preparing to reopen. Credit: PA

The TUC warned the proposed guidance repeatedly suggests "employers should consider" actions such as enabling social distancing or providing handwashing facilities, but also suggests individual employers can decide to ignore the suggestions.

Unions cannot be expected to support the guidance without knowing what the Government is asking employers to consider in terms of workers' use of PPE, the TUC continued.

There is also a lack of safe working requirements for vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, the union added.

Guidance appears to suggest that pregnant women can be expected to work in unsafe environments, in violation of their existing rights under health and safety law, they said.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "We cannot support the Government's back-to-work plans as they stand.

London's financial sector. Credit: PA

"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," she said.

Prospect union General Secretary Mike Clancy said: "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."

Workers wearing shield masks. Credit: PA

John Phillips, acting General Secretary of the GMB Union, said: "We desperately need to get the economy going and nobody is keener than GMB to get people back to work - but this guidance was thrown together in a hurry and it shows.

"The guidance has to be clear on how safe working practice is to be enforced," he said.

"As it stands, there is nothing on PPE, nothing on enforcement to ensure workplaces are safe and nothing giving workers the assurances they need to get back to their jobs.

"In its current form, this guidance does not adequately protect workers from Covid-19 exposure and as a result many may refuse to work to avoid putting themselves and their families at risk."

A packed tube platform in London from October 2019. Scenes like these will need to be avoided. Credit: PA

Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey said the union, which represents the construction industry, was in talks with the government over the developing proposals and would not comment further.

"We recognise that the task before the governments is an enormous one and that the right calls have to be made to avoid further death and ill health and to avert a deep recession," Mr McCluskey said.

"We are therefore committed to contributing fully to the back to work discussions, ensuring that ministers and employers hear your voice at the table."

In an open letter to the prime minister, British Chambers of Commerce President, Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith said she wanted to see "the planning and communication of a carefully phased approach to lifting lockdown".

The BCC represents 75,000 businesses across the UK.

Baroness McGregor-Smith wrote that mass testing and contact tracing, clear decisions and guidance on what PPE is needed in workplaces were "fundamental prerequisites" to a back-to-work plan.

Josh Hardie, Confederation of British Industry Deputy Director General, said: "Restart must put health first, or it will risk sending the economy backwards. It must continue the Government’s approach of flexibility within a framework."This means firms receive clear guidance and can move at speeds that suit their circumstances. Critically, it also means those who have already invested heavily in safety don’t have to start again."

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