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Government must take responsibility for mask guidance, not pass the buck to businesses

4 min read

New workplace safety guidance has been branded chaotic and confusing, replacing legal guidance with vague exhortations to do the right thing.

In just a few days the UK enters the final stage of the “roadmap”. Announcements this week have set out that limits on the number of people at gatherings will be scrapped, the requirement to socially distance will end, people will no longer be advised to work from home, and wearing masks in shops, restaurants and on public transport will no longer be mandatory. Legal Covid restrictions will be replaced with guidance for employers and the public are to “proceed now with caution.” 

It has been an incredibly tough 16 months for the public and businesses alike, and we’ve all been looking forward to meeting and trading like we used to. But we are at a critical moment in our fight against the virus. We need government to take responsibility, not pass the buck to businesses.

Businesses I have spoken to have been looking forward to this time, when the economy fully reopens, restrictions ease and business as usual can resume.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear businesses now say that this is the worst handled announcement from the government in a year, leaving them unprotected and forced to make public health decisions they do not feel equipped to make. They’ve been left with vague and unclear advice, encouraging but not mandating the use of masks as well as the NHS Covid Pass, with no details about how this would work, and the sectors and businesses in scope.

By inexplicably backtracking on effective safety precautions, the government is going too far, too fast

This week the government published new workplace safety guidance, without bothering to consult first with employers and trade unions. It has been branded chaotic and confusing, replacing legal guidance with vague exhortations to do the right thing. The government’s weak guidance also risks obscuring existing laws around workplace safety to protect workers, which must still be followed and enforced.

Businesses across the country have indeed done the right thing throughout this crisis – closing to keep people safe, following the scientific advice and adapting their operations in an extraordinary way. Covid safety measures have allowed staff to feel comfortable and safe in the workplace and have helped to reduce the number of workers having to isolate and take sick leave. These measures have also given consumers the confidence to leave their homes and spend their money in businesses. By legally mandating social distancing and the wearing of masks as guided by experts, the government wasn’t hampering businesses, but helping them.  

Businesses’ ability to adapt was helped by them being involved and consulted ahead of the implementation of current workplace safety guidance. This time, they have been left to scramble with contradictory advice, as ministers have ducked making difficult decisions in favour of passing the burden onto employers. Trade unions have been left unable to feed in and consult with employers to make workplaces as safe as possible.

In doing so, the government has made what should be a really positive development into one that has left businesses and the nation concerned that we are taking a reckless gamble.   

Labour wants to see restrictions eased in a measured and cautious way. But the Conservatives are accelerating the car whilst flinging off the seatbelt.

Ministers should be following their own scientific advice which shows that current protections – such as masks, ventilation and working from home – help bring down transmissions and hospitalisations. They help protect those who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated and vulnerable. If such measures don’t harm the economy and protect public health, their removal is not based on science, but ideology.

We need to maintain mandatory mask-wearing on public transport and in essential shops, and I am proud that Labour mayors across the country are taking a stand and calling for masks to remain compulsory on public transport.

Labour is also calling on the government to continue providing businesses with access to workplace testing, and to use the summer period to get proper ventilation into schools and public buildings. And of course we need to do everything we can to speed up vaccinating which remains our best protection against the virus.

We all want to move forward and leave the pandemic behind us. But by inexplicably backtracking on effective safety precautions, the government is going too far, too fast. Passing their responsibilities onto businesses and the public may be convenient for the Conservatives, but it is not good for public health and it is not good for the economy.   

We have come so far since the last lockdown. We can’t let the Conservatives’ irresponsibility undo all that progress, dropping the baton at the final hurdle and leaving businesses to clean up the mess.


Seema Malhotra is the Labour MP for Feltham and Heston and Shadow Minister for Business and Consumers.

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