Back to work – or stay at home. What do we do?

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Boris Johnson’s announcement of a so-called “first sketch of a roadmap” for easing the Coronavirus lockdown has presented a dilemma for many employers and calls from one union boss to flatly ignore calls to return to work unless real safety measures are in place.

On Monday he faced urgent calls for further guidance from businesses, unions, politicians and commentators.

His messages of “actively encouraging” construction and manufacturing workers to return to work while telling people to avoid public transport “if at all possible” and maintain social distancing, led to confusion, not simply because of the questions it raised but also the timing.

Reaction was quick, some openly condemning the statement, others merely reiterating the need for more information. But even as a fuller explanation was given, companies were still struggling to find the balance.

Shadow employment secretary Andy McDonald tabled a Commons question which urged ministers to put in place proper protections to keep employees safe, accusing the Government of rushing out plans with minimal consultation.

Unions had been given only 12 hours to review them, he said. “No worker should have their lives put at risk simply for going to work.” and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, said workers “should refuse” to return to work without proper measures in place.

Businesses will need to see detailed plans for the phased easing of restrictions

Rachel Houghton, managing director at Business Moves Group (BMG) questioned how workplaces could impose social distancing, acknowledging such measures as physical markers, masks and visors, segregated shifts and staggered breaks, right the way up to thermal screening and giving bonuses for good behaviour.

“The list is endless. But it has to be about balance,” she said. “We have to consider social distancing versus the cost of returning to work. With each suggestion for how the workplace world may combat the spread of covid-19, there’s a cost. These things all have to be on the checklist. And the costs are going to add up.

“Shift staggering could prove to be a key social distancing tactic but employers have to consider the impact of yet more change on their already anxious workforce. Enforced shift patterns create additional stresses for the employee, and that’s not what we need right now.

Some people are as keen as mustard to get back to the office to have that social interaction. Others are enjoying working from home

“Grouping employees into different days or different shifts, for example, will affect personal lives, not to mention team dynamics, so this will need careful consideration. Employee engagement will be crucial in managing any change moving forward. People need to feel part of the change and invest in it.

“I think there’s a real mixed bag of emotions in the world right now. Some people are as keen as mustard to get back to the office to have that social interaction. Others are enjoying working from home. I’m sure a balance can be found. The availability of workplace is going to be limited, so by understanding and balancing the needs of the business and the desires of the employees I am sure social distancing can be achieved. Over time confidence will be restored.

“Forward-thinking companies will be talking to their employees, their supply chain and their customers right now in order to build a strategy that takes onboard everybody’s experiences to date with the view to ensuring a step-change process that will better support the business, and everyone who’s part of it, in the future.”

Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce said it was vital that clear advice was given on personal protective equipment and social distancing.

“Companies will do everything they can to protect employees and customers, maintain social distancing and operate successfully as more sections of the economy are permitted to reopen,” he said.

“Businesses will need to see detailed plans for the phased easing of restrictions. Firms will also need to know that government support schemes, which have helped save millions of jobs in recent weeks, will continue for as long as they are needed so that they can plan ahead with confidence.

“The timing of further easing of restrictions must be guided by the public health evidence, but businesses need their practical questions answered so they can plan to restart, rebuild and renew.”

Businesses should consult their people to put in place robust policies, which in many cases might not be an overnight process

IoD director general Jonathan Geldart also called for further clarity. He said: “As people with ultimate legal responsibility, directors need to have confidence that it’s safe, and that if they act responsibly they won’t be at undue risk.

“Businesses should consult with their people to put in place robust policies, which in many cases might not be an overnight process.

“For a large number of firms, operating under social distancing rules will mean significantly reduced activity, so the government’s support measures must match continuing restrictions.”

While stopping work was necessarily fast and immediate, restarting will be slower and more complex

Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI, said Johnson’s announcement “marks the start of a long process. While stopping work was necessarily fast and immediate, restarting will be slower and more complex. It must go hand in hand with plans for schools, transport, testing and access to PPE. Firms will want to see a roadmap, with dates they can plan for.”

They wanted to do their bit to “get the economy back on its feet,” adding: “They also know putting health first is the only sustainable route to economic recovery. The message of continued vigilance is right.”

Mike Robinson, chief executive of the British Safety Council said: “Yesterday’s announcement compounded a week of mixed messages that will put workers at risk – it is reckless to urge people back to work before clear guidance has been published and before employers have put in place plans to make workplaces safe.

“Instead of a phased plan, allowing managers to understand and interpret guidance, anxious workers are going to be piling back on to public transport without any clear rules and guidance. We are working to help our members and customers to carry out proper risk assessments, but the confusing messages from government are not helping anyone.”

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT said: “The government’s announcement that schools in England might reopen to more children from June 1 risks thousands of schools rushing to make decisions about how best to safeguard the health and safety of children and staff in the absence of any clear national guidance.

“It is baffling that following the government’s decision to close all schools on public health grounds that the government now expects individual schools to work out for themselves whether or not it will be safe to reopen on June 1 and potentially put at risk the health of children, staff and the public.

Dr Rupert Beale, Group Leader, Cell Biology of Infection Laboratory, Francis Crick Institute, said: “The broad strategy outlined by the Prime Minister – to keep the virus suppressed with R below 1 – is exactly right. The immediate next steps seem to be a very modest relaxation of the ‘lockdown’.

“The opportunity for additional exercise is welcome. However, I am concerned that confused messaging might lead people to relax their efforts too soon. It’s imperative that a really effective testing, tracing and isolation system is working before any significant change to the rules takes place.”

Half of workers are happy to return