Boris Johnson has been warned by trade unions that ordering many people back to work from as early as Mondayis a “recipe for chaos” without urgent action to safeguard workers’ health.
The prime minister said on Sunday anyone who can’t work from home should be “actively encouraged” to return to their jobs from Monday. Detailing plans to gradually reopen the British economy after more than a month of tough controls during the health emergency, he said those in manufacturing and construction jobs in particular should be encouraged to return.
However trade union leaders said the road map was too confusing and that vital measures were missing to protect people returning to work. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe. So how can the prime minister — with 12 hours’ notice — tell people they should be going back to sites and factories? It’s a recipe for chaos.”
John Philips, acting general secretary of the GMB union, said: “More mixed messages from the government — saying there’s no end to lockdown, but asking everyone to go back to work.”
“If ministers want the economy moving again we need strict rules on hygiene and social distancing, enough PPE for everyone, regulations employers can’t just ignore if they fancy it.”
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: “There must be no cutting corners, no playing fast and loose with employees’ safety. The economy is important, but lives are too.”
Business leaders said more action to safeguard workers would be needed before the economy could be fully reopened.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, said: “This 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.”
Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, the manufacturers’ trade group, said it cautiously welcomed the prime minister calling for factory staff to return to work. “However, it is critical that there is clear advice on how to do that, and an understanding that firms will be helped to comply as we navigate uncharted waters, and not punished for inadvertent errors.”
Taking steps to modify the controls on social life and business activity across Britain, the prime minister said a phased reopening of shops would begin from the start of June, while some parts of the hospitality industry would be allowed to reopen from July. However, it is understood this will not include pubs.
With the economy on the brink of the deepest recession in more than three centuries, Johnson said those returning to work should avoid using public transport if possible. However, transport unions warned this could prove practically impossible and they could be forced to take matters into their own hands if trains and buses became overcrowded.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef, said: “Rightly, social distancing limits capacity on public transport and, if we believe that staff or public are being put at risk, we will not hesitate to ensure all are protected.”
Manual Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA transport union, said sending people back to work was dangerous and risked turning rail workers into “cannon fodder” for the sake of Tory donors in the construction sector. He said the idea that people can go work without using public transport was “a ridiculous notion.”
“It will cause chaos and our transport network is not ready for any increase in passengers,” he added.
Johnson’s plan could risk fuelling a burgeoning divide in society between people unable to work from home and those in typically higher-paying jobs where it is possible. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, less than one-in-ten of those in the lowest half of all earners in Britain can work from home.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, almost 60% of workers in London are able to work from home, compared to 38% in the north-east. The thinktank has urged ministers to offer incentives to companies to help them adapt to more home working, arguing the benefits would be felt for society at large from lower levels of virus transmission.