‘Heartless and reckless’ move
The TUC joins Unite and others’ fears for extremely vulnerable staff being forced back to potentially unsafe workplaces from tomorrow
Reading time: 6 min
‘Heartless and reckless’ was how the TUC said it was ‘to force shielding people back to work.’
Earlier this week we reported on the reality of shielding and the extreme distress many of the two million extremely vulnerable people would feel – suddenly to be hurled into chaos of commuting at a time when coronavirus infection rates are on the rise and the complete confusion on who is and where is supposed to be locked down reigns supreme.
On July 29 Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said, “The world of work has fundamentally changed since March and as we ease back into the workplace, we need to pay special attention to the concerns of those who have been ‘shielding’ these last five months.
“There is an arbitrary ring to the August 1 date and we question whether ministers have thought through all the implications as thousands of ‘shielding’ workers gingerly return to their place of employment.
“The pandemic has shown that trade unions are the last line of defence when it comes to protecting employment rights and maintaining health and safety standards,” she added.
Cartmail continued, “There has been insufficient time allowed by this announcement for many individuals to mentally adjust to the proposed physical return to work, often on possibly crowded public transport; let alone sorting out with their employer risks associated with travel and workplace assessment.
Unite and other unions believe it is morally wrong and potentially dangerous for bosses to demand the immediate return of shielding workers on August 1 – especially so when the government will no longer advise them to stay safe at home or pay them statutory sick pay.
In demands to be presented to ministers, the TUC is asking employers not to force the return of their staff and instead to continue using the government’s job retention scheme for shielding workers, which runs until October. It is also calling for this to be extended for people who are told by their doctor that they should shield for longer.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, too, people will no longer have to shield after July 31; in Wales, shielding is expected to end on August 16.
Anxiety and distress
Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, told the Guardian, “It would be heartless and reckless for employers to demand the immediate return of shielding workers. After self-isolation for a number of months, requiring shielding workers to immediately travel to workplaces may cause anxiety and distress.
“The government must make clear to employers that they cannot give shielding workers unreasonable ultimatums to return to workplaces. The job retention scheme is in place until at least October, so employers must continue using it if home working is not an option.
“And the government should make clear that furlough will still be an option after October for shielding workers who cannot safely travel to workplaces or who may be subject to a local lockdown,” added O’Grady.
The government has said people who have been shielding in England can go back to work if they cannot work from home and their workplace is “Covid-secure”, which includes social-distancing measures, additional cleaning and improved ventilation.
The Health and Safety Executive says every effort should be made to help shielding workers do their jobs from home, but as we know only too well many jobs like driving a bus, being a biomedical scientist, or working in manufacturing cannot be done from the safety of your own home.
Today (July 31), Unite’s Gail Cartmail was interviewed by Times Radio. In her interview she said, “I think the big issue is apart from their – let’s be clear here – extreme vulnerability – this announcement and the pressure bearing down on them feeling that they don’t have a choice, in many circumstances, is causing great stress and mental ill health.
“That’s been mentioned by lots of charities particularly Macmillan Cancer Care and others, saying that on top of the underlying health conditions we’ve added stress and mental health – and that is an issue.
“A lot of people want to go back to work – of course they do. But what we have to ensure is put in place are special assessments that meet their individual needs. That takes a lot of time. It can’t be a cliff edge date of August 1. And I would also ask – and nobody has really helped us understand this – what is the science behind that date?
“I’ve looked at the government advice issued in the early hours of this morning regarding Blackburn and Darwen but it’s quite hard to understand really what the message is.”
If you are worried in any way about being made to return to work too early, or if you believe your concerns are not being seriously addressed then contact your Unite rep or regional office, or join Unite if you haven’t done so already.
“In union organised workplaces, Unite reps will be on hand to manage the expected spike in members experiencing extreme workplace anxiety – from mental health issues to maintaining the two metre social distancing rule for this group, rather than the more relaxed ‘one metre plus’ favoured by the prime minister,” Gail Cartmail added.
Words compiled by Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite; Interview compiled by Martin Scanlon @redmjs