Unite calls for ‘clarity and caution’ as Johnson leads nation into sea of chaos
Confused? PM Johnson’s sketchy plans leaves the UK baffled
Speaking in his now habitual faux-Churchillian style, he addressed his ‘classroom’ of viewers as a latter day Magnus Pyke (an eccentric scientist popular in the 70s), with his constant references to charts, equations and the R factor (rate of infection apparently). Blinded by the R = mc squared-style graphics the viewer was then taken step by five-steps through the ‘conditional plan’ to spend more times outside from Wednesday – in England.
The PM also said people who could not work from home should return to the workplace. However they should avoid public transport – and he gave the distinct impression they should be ready to hit the road 12 hours later for a Monday morning start.
Back in the playgrounds of the 1970s we all enjoyed a hilarious joke. It went something like this, “Be Alert – Britain needs Lerts.” Not funny? – well you had to have been there. But here we are now with the government’s very own unfunny joke – a ‘new Covid Alert System’ complete with five easy-peasy levels which could how quickly and simply easy lockdown restrictions – the Boris Johnson way.
All he needed was a swagger stick to point at the chart and even Dad’s Army’s Mr Mainwaring would have been impressed.
For ease of reference, he hoped the next step “at the earliest by June 1” would be for some primary pupils to return to school in England. This key stage would also involve shops re-opening – but added this would only happen if supported by the science – of course.
Then, “if the numbers support it” some hospitality businesses and other public places could re-open. But before you book your anniversary dinner, this would not be before July 1.
“This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week,” Johnson reminded the nation. “Instead we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.” He said these steps formed part of a “first sketch of a roadmap for reopening society.”
He also confirmed that the “small minority who break” lockdown would be fined – but in this world of sketchy outlines no other details were forthcoming.
It later emerged from government officials that from Wednesday, people in England will be allowed out of the house as often as they like for socially distanced outdoor activities – including exercise, sunbathing or reading in the park.
Individuals will also be allowed to meet with someone (but only one person at a time) who is not a member of their household, so long as they are outdoors and 2-metre social distancing rules are observed.
People will also be permitted to drive to distant destinations (within England) such as parks and beaches to enjoy the summer weather. Non-contact outdoor sports such as tennis, golf and fishing will also be allowed only with members of your own household, likewise with swimming in rivers, lakes and the sea.
For those vulnerable currently shielding you’ll still be incarcerated within the confines of your house and grounds (should you have any) for at least 12 weeks.
The UK’s nations outside of England now appear to have clearer and safer messages, generally maintaining the ‘stay at home’ mantra – confusing the situation even further. It means that there is now no unified UK response to dealing with the pandemic.
Trade unions, employers, Labour, leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, police chiefs and many others, were vociferously united in their criticism of this mish-mash of hazy, sketchy, utter confusion.
But most controversial of all was the PM’s “change of emphasis” regarding workplace guidance, with those unable to work from home in England now “actively encouraged to go to work” this week.
Trade union leaders were rightly worried. The problem is new guidance for employers on how to maintain social distancing will not be issued to bosses until this afternoon (May 11) at the earliest.
There is little evidence public transport systems are ready for large numbers of workers to start returning to their daily commute. In England’s biggest cities there is concern about whether public transport networks can cope without dangerous crowding.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the PM’s statement was “a recipe for chaos” given the lack of workplace guidance, and accused him of creating “confusion and anxiety” for workers.
And employers are not happy either. The London Chamber of Commerce urged businesses not to reopen until they had received “sufficient information on how to get your employees safely to work” or “keep them safe while they are there.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan issued a statement reminding people the lockdown is not actually over, and urging them to avoid public transport wherever possible.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey responded to the chaos last night by calling for ‘clarity and caution’ – adding that ‘decisions taken now and will shape our country’s future.’ In an absolutely crystal clear statement – the diametric opposite to that of Boris Johnson’s, McCluskey voiced his very real concerns for workers.
As the country continues to combat Covid-19, which has left the UK with one of the worst death tolls in Europe, McCluskey was adamant that, “The decisions taken by the UK government in the coming days will shape the health and wealth of this country, not just in the immediate term but for generations to come.
“It is absolutely vital then that the UK government proceeds with total clarity and maximum caution as it works to pull the country out of lockdown – and that it gets the sequencing of the return to work right.
“People cannot get to work safely unless there is safe transport for them to use,” he commented.
‘Cramming onto public transport’
“Yet there is now a real risk that in a few hours’ time, workers will be cramming onto public transport, putting at risk their lives and those of others. This has not been thought through and the failure to do so places working people in danger.
“Similarly, issuing safety guidance to employers instead of definite, mandatory instructions is not acceptable. This runs a huge risk that some employers will follow the advice while others do not, and we urgently need to hear more from government about how it will install the inspection and enforcement systems necessary to support safe working.
“Unions like Unite have a wealth of health and safety expertise and we are already working with responsible employers to ensure that working people can be confident that they can be safe both at work and on the way to work.”
McCluskey expanded on this vital point. “There is a standing army of tens of thousands of trades union safety representatives that could be deployed in a national effort to unlock the economy in a safe, responsible way. To fail to enlist this pool of people expert in keeping people safe at work is simply bewildering,” he said.
He continued, “We are very concerned that at the very point we need to build clarity and confidence, doing everything possible to avert a second spike, that this next phase is unfolding in a jumbled, confusing manner.
“Of course, we want to get the economy back on its feet as soon as possible but with such enormous sacrifices given by so many already, we have to honour those who have lost their lives along with those who are caring for us through this crisis by keeping people safe and by building a future of which this country can be proud,” he concluded.
Further details about England’s lockdown are expected in guidance to be published today.
The PM will address the House of Commons this afternoon, shortly after publishing full details of his three-stage plan to start easing the lockdown across England. The long-awaited 50-page government blueprint for loosening restrictions – which many believe would have made sense to have published before the announcement – will be released early this afternoon, before the PM heads to the Commons chamber at 3.30 p.m. for an hour-long session with MPs.
The PM will then take part in a separate Q&A direct to camera, answering selected questions submitted by members of the public.
- We will of course be updating this story as more guidance emerges later today – so stay tuned to UNITElive.org
- We will also be posting Len McCluskey’s excellent interview on this morning’s BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme.
By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite