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Coronavirus: unions warn they cannot support government back-to-work guidance ‘thrown together in a hurry’

Unions have warned they cannot support the plans in their current state

4 min read

Guidance aimed at getting some British firms back to work during the coronavirus pandemic appears to have been “thrown together in a hurry”, a major trade union has warned.

The GMB joined the TUC umbrella group for unions in saying it could not back the draft advice, which comes ahead of the latest review of the UK’s lockdown measures later this week.

Employers and unions have been asked for proposals on the new guidelines, which have been put together by the Department for Business and the Cabinet Office, and include plans to curb hot-desking in offices and encourage staff to keep their distance if returning to work.

All seven drafts have been leaked to BuzzFeed News, which says builders and shop workers will be told to communicate via radio instead of face-to-face; office workers will be told to stagger arrival and departure times to reduce crowding; and the use of corridors, lifts and staircases will be tightly regulated.

But the drafts - drawn up for specific sectors including shops, hotels, restaurants, factories and warehouses - reportedly say only “guidance to follow” under a heading on the use of Personal Protective Equipment.

John Phillips, GMB’s acting general secretary, made clear that his union could not back “incomplete” guidance.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Mr Phillips added: "The guidance has to be clear on how safe working practice is to be enforced, 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.”

Meanwhile TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said there were "huge gaps" over PPE and testing, and warned that her union could not back the guidance in its “current form”.

The union boss told the BBC’s The World At One: "The problem is the Government is asking us to trust employer discretion, use words like 'consider social distancing', 'consider having hand sanitiser or soap available' - and frankly that's just not good enough."

Ms O’Grady said Number 10 still had time to "get this right” - and urged ministers to work with unions to avoid a “botched job".

Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband said: “We share the Government’s desire for a safe return to work as soon as it is possible. The Government must work with businesses and trade unions to ensure workers are fully protected.”

And he added: "Employers have a legal responsibility to protect their staff and others and the Government's guidelines must make this clear. This is also in the interests of the majority of businesses who want to do the right thing.”


The row over government guidance comes ahead of a crucial Cabinet meeting on Thursday at which ministers will decide whether or not to continue with the lockdown measures which have now been in place for more than a month.

Boris Johnson, who has promised to set out “roadmap” to restart the economy and is expected to reveal his latest thinking in a speech on Sunday, said: "The worst thing we could do now is ease up too soon and allow a second peak of coronavirus."

That echoes the message given by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at her own daily update on Monday, with the SNP leader bracing the country to "stick with lockdown for a bit longer".

She said: “The numbers still being infected by the virus and the all-important R number remain too high right now to make any meaningful change without risking the virus running quickly out of control again.”


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