'Mixed signals'

PM fails to outline clear safe return to work plan after easing lockdown

Reading time: 6 min

If the British public was hoping for a more coherent message from prime minister Boris Johnson in the Commons on Monday (May 11), following his televised announcement on easing lockdown measures on Sunday (May 10), they were left sorely disappointed.

Doubling down on confusion and chaos, Johnson simply re-hashed his Sunday speech, emphasising the bafflingly meaningless slogan ‘stay alert’ and providing little detail about how, exactly, people who cannot telecommute are supposed to return to work safely at a time when the UK has the highest coronavirus death toll in all of Europe.

After yet again more confusion about when exactly people are expected to return to work, the government clarified they are encouraging people who cannot work from home and whose businesses are allowed to be open to return from tomorrow (Wednesday 13).

Johnson also called on people to avoid public transport but with a majority of workers in cities not having access to a vehicle and living too far from work to walk or cycle, he failed to explain how people can feasibly return to work if they cannot physically get there without overwhelming the transport system and putting themselves in danger.

Responding to the prime minister’s Commons statement on Monday (May 11), Labour leader Kier Starmer demanded more clarity.

“We needed to hear that no one would be asked to go to work or send their children to school without it being safe to do so,” he said. “The prime minister said he was setting out a road map but if we are to complete the journey safely then a road map needs clear directions. So many of us have questions that need answering. How can we be sure our workplaces are now safe to return to? How can we get to work safely if we need public transport to do so?”

Government guidance published

The devil is in the details and those details were published yesterday and today in much-anticipated government guidance on a safe return to work and public transport travel.

Unite has welcomed that the workplace guidance encourages employers working with trade unions to make their workplaces safe, but the union said that health and safety reps have a much greater role to play in the national effort to ensure safe working environments.

“There are tens of thousands of union safety specialists than can be enlisted to assist employers and the Health and Safety Executive in a concerted approach to eliminate the spread of the virus and fulfil the prime minister’s call to make workplaces corona virus secure,” said Unite general secretary Len McCluskey.

Unite also raised concerns over the guidance on safe travel, which advises people to avoid public transport but at the same time gives guidelines on using transport if people must in order to get to work.

The guidance asks people to keep 2m apart ‘wherever possible’; to wear a face mask coverings ‘if you can’; and to avoid rush hour ‘where feasible’, among other measures.

Transport concerns

But Unite has highlighted that much more must be done to ensure the transport network is safe and to make sure transport workers are not put at greater risk as the numbers of people using the tube, trains and buses increases as they return to work.

“Safe workplaces and safe travel to work must go hand in hand in the strategy to beating this disease,” McCluskey said. “Together, they are absolutely crucial to building wider public confidence that it is right and safe to re-awaken the economy, which we all want to happen in order to keep people at work and earning.”

“However, the government is in danger yet again of sending mixed signals,” he added. “In a matter of hours, construction and manufacturing workers will be expected to return to work using a transport system that cannot yet observe social distancing obligations. 

 “Unite has lost transport members to this awful disease.  In their honour and in honour of all those workers who have died because of corona, we ask that much more is done to ensure that working people are safe to get to and from work including staggered work times.”

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon also raised concerns today (May 12) over public transport as he highlighted scenes of large crowds boarding London tube stations on Monday, the day after prime minister Boris Johnson first called on people to return to work.

“This guidance fails to answer the fundamental question, how do you stop the transport network being overwhelmed when it’s currently running at a fraction of capacity?” McMahon noted.

“The scenes we saw on public transport services yesterday were unsurprising when you order a return to work with 12 hours’ notice with no official guidance on how workers can keep safe and fail to put in place suitable measures to deal with demand. That was irresponsible and wrong.”

Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said today (May 12) that workplaces which are unable to follow coronavirus safety guidelines, such as maintaining 2m social distancing, should not reopen.

HSE chief executive Sarah Albon said that every workplace should do a risk assessment, and “if an individual employer concludes that particular issues around the way they work or their accommodation or their staff means they can’t, then they should individually not open.”

Above all, Unite has said that no worker should be forced to go into work if they do not feel safe.

“Crucially, employers must not pressurise workers to imperil themselves and others by crowding on to buses, trains or tubes,” McCluskey went on to say.

 “Unite will protect every member who decides that they cannot work because either their journey to their workplace or the workplace itself are not safe.”

By Hajera Blagg

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