Prime minister Boris Johnson today (June 23) announced a further easing of lockdown measures, with plans to reopen pubs, cinemas, restaurants, museums and certain other venues from July 4.
Critically, the prime minister also announced from July 4 a reduction of the social distancing guidelines from two meters to what he called ‘one metre plus’.
He highlighted that 2m was still the safer option but added that maintaining less than 2m would be acceptable as long as other mitigating measures were in place such as wearing face coverings, having people face away from each other, installing screens or installing extra handwashing facilities.
The government is set to publish guidance for businesses later today highlighting how they can create a safe workplace, including by changing shift and seating patterns among other measures.
From July 4 two households can meet in any setting including inside. They do not need to be the same two households each time but they are not recommending multiple meetings of multiple households indoors.
Businesses that must remain shut include indoor gyms, nail bars, spas, swimming pools and bowling alleys, among others.
The new lockdown measures will be in place as guidelines only and will no longer be enforced through legislation.
You can read the prime minister’s statement in full here.
Some critics have said detail of the plans remain unclear and unions were especially concerned over the fact that they were not consulted over the social distancing reduction, which could place workers in a range of sectors under serious health risk without additional precautions in place.
Food processing fears
Coronavirus fears in the meat processing sector are running especially high now, after three meat processing plants have been closed in England and Wales in the last two weeks alone because of Covid-19 outbreaks.
Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Bev Clarkson explained the union sector’s concerns over reducing social distancing.
“Many employers are barely taking notice of the two-metre social distancing rule as it is,” she said. “Any downgrade for the meat industry in the current environment will simply give irresponsible bosses the excuse they need to do away with social distancing entirely. Put simply, it will risk more outbreaks at factories across the country.
“Before any new measures are enacted, ministers and employers need to get to grips with the spate of outbreaks that have occurred under the present two metre rule. As well as more stringent health and safety regimes in factories, systems for testing and contact tracing within the industry need to be improved.”
Hospitality industry concerns
Unite has likewise expressed deep concerns over reducing social distancing to one meter for workers in the hospitality industry. As UniteLIVE highlighted earlier this month, the hospitality industry has aggressively lobbied government to relax social distancing measures so that businesses such as pubs and restaurants can operate at greater capacity once they reopen.
Unite national officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull said that the union’s members in the sector feared for their health as social distancing is relaxed.
“Our members feel that reducing from two to one metre places them at greater risk as it will increase venue capacity,” he explained. “They believe that on busy shifts, 2 metres becomes 1 and 1 metre becomes 0. They point to the fact that chefs, many of whom have been working throughout the pandemic for takeaways and deliveries, have one of the highest occupational death rates from Covid-19.”
Turnbull added that hospitality employers, many of which are known for their poor treatment of their workforce, have cynically pushed the government to reduce social distancing for their own ends.
“Employers are telling the government that 2 metres will cause mass redundancies – but those same employers are telling workers they have no choice but to make mass redundancies by August 1st because the government expects them to contribute to the job retention scheme.”
Warehouse workers at risk
Meanwhile, workers in the warehouse and logistics sector are also among those facing heightened risk of catching and spreading the virus because of the nature of their work. With deliveries never having stopped since they lockdown, they have worked throughout the pandemic.
Unite national officer for road transport and logistics Adrian Jones warned that the unceasing drive for profits among companies operating in the sector is one of the main risk factors for workers in the sector.
“The drive to increase production is really going to challenge people to maintain social distancing whether that’s 1 meter or 2 meters,” he said. “We can’t rely on PPE or any one safety measure alone – social distancing is a vital measure to ensure workers’ safety.
“What we have been calling for and continue to call for are marshals to enforce social distancing,” he added. “We also have more widespread concerns about how social distancing reduction may cause an increase in infections more generally across the population which will affect our members’ lives, whether in the workplace or outside it.”
Health and safety rep call
On the eve of the prime minister Boris Johnson announcing a relaxation in social distancing measures, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey called on the government to take up the union’s offer to deploy its health and safety reps to assist in re-opening workplaces and community spaces safely.
“Being serious about re-opening the economy safely means, as the government has repeatedly pledged, doing whatever it takes to build public and workforce confidence,” he said. “Any suggested reduction to the two metre rule which has prevailed throughout the lockdown could backfire if the prime minister and the government cannot give an absolute assurance that public health will not be compromised.”
McCluskey highlighted how both First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford have advised employers to work hand-in-hand with unions and safety reps to ensure that their workplaces are safe.
“Surely English workers deserve the same investment in their safety?” he noted.
“Prime minister, Unite’s offer still stands,” McCluskey went on to say. “Put our expertise to best use, assisting in workplaces with no dedicated health and safety expertise. We could save small businesses a small fortune as our expertise comes with no cost.
“This is literally a win: win for the government – safer workplaces and a more confident public. I am baffled by the government’s reluctance to accept this contribution to the national effort of bringing the country out of lockdown.”
McCluskey warned that there would “inevitably be confusion as any new guidance is rolled out” and noted that there will be concerns in specific sectors in the economy, such as warehousing, hospitality and meat processing that “mixed messages on social distancing will actually hamper the recovery”.
“Again, we have the infrastructure the length and breadth of the country to communicate and monitor as we transition out of lockdown,” he continued.”This is an investment in public and worker confidence and I urge the prime minister to see the sense in accepting our assistance.”
Stay tuned for more on this story as it develops.
By Hajera Blagg