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The Breakfast Briefing: Back-to-work row, Boris’s Commons statement - and Nicola Sturgeon’s fury

Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear she is not happy with the new ‘stay alert’ message.

4 min read

Your essential guide to what’s moving in Westminster this morning from the PoliticsHome team

Are you going back to work today? Should you? Can you? Boris Johnson last night announced a “change in emphasis” for the Government’s stay-at-home message, but it left a fair bit unsaid.

"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,” the Prime Minister said. “And we want it to be safe for you to get to work so you should avoid public transport. So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home." 

At the time of writing, there has been no guidance published on GOV.UK about how that safe return to work might come about. While the Prime Minister listed two sectors that may be able to get going again, other firms will this morning be faced with one hell of a judgement call when deciding whether to tell staff to come back in. 

More detailed documents are expected this afternoon, when Johnson will update the Commons before fielding a round of questions from the public, but Labour and the unions are already up in arms about the idea people could be sent back to work without the right protections in place.

As well as a deadly pandemic, are we now seeing the beginnings of a major constitutional battle?

In a letter to Business Secretary Alok Sharma, opposition frontbenchers Ed Miliband and Andy McDonald say: “Every worker deserves to work without fear. Without clear rules in place for workplaces, this cannot happen. Ordering a return to work with 12 hours' notice and no official guidance on how workers can keep safe is irresponsible and wrong.”

You’d expect Labour and the trade unions to make a noise on this, of course, and in a further sign of trouble, teachers’ union the NEU has already signalled its anger at the PM’s idea of a “phased” return to school for some primary pupils in June. 

But perhaps more worrying for the Government will be the fairly muted response from some of the big business groups.

The British Chambers of Commerce demanded “detailed plans for the phased easing of restrictions, coordinated with all nations across the UK and supported by clear guidance” - including information on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), an issue not broached by the PM in his speech last night. Even the CBI, which called the speech “the first glimmer of light” for businesses, warned: “Success will rest on flexibility within a framework: clear guidance which firms can adapt for their particular circumstances.“

As if that wasn’t enough to be contending with, the Government now faces a very real split with the devolved nations on its message to the public. 

If Nicola Sturgeon’s previous swipes at Westminster’s coronavirus response have felt somewhat showy, pre-empting Cobra announcements just for the fun of it, there was no doubting her anger this weekend when she tore into the ‘Stay Alert’ message that is now replacing ‘Stay At Home’ in the UK’s Covid-19 slogan. “For Scotland right now, given the fragility of the progress we've made, given the critical point that we are at, then it would be catastrophic for me to drop the 'stay at home' message,” she said. "I am particularly not prepared to do it in favour of a message that is vague and imprecise." 

While Johnson was keen to emphasise that the “four nations” approach continues in his speech last night, Sturgeon has already asked the UK Government not to use its new campaign north of the Border. As well as a deadly pandemic, are we now seeing the beginnings of a major constitutional battle?

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