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Following the easing of the coronavirus lockdown measures, those who cannot work from home are now being “actively encouraged” to return to their jobs – though they are being warned to avoid public transport if at all possible.
Many workers may be regarding this news with a sense of trepidation. Is it actually safe to do so? What if I have to get public transport?
Here are some things you need to know.
Which workers can return?
As of Sunday, the only workers Boris Johnson specifically mentioned were those in the construction and manufacturing industry.
On Monday this was elaborated on to include supermarket workers, those in labs and research facilities, tradesmen, delivery drivers, cleaners “and so on”.
A phased reopening of shops will not begin until June at the earliest and some sectors of the hospitality industry may be reopened by July.
Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK – the manufacturers’ organisation, cautiously welcomed the news, though repeated calls for specific advice on how to make workplaces safe.
He said: “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.
“In many parts of manufacturing people will need to work much more closely than two metres apart. It is vital that the guidance is explicit about how this may be achieved safely.”
Construction worker Daniel Smith told the Press Association: “I’m fortunate enough where I’m able to return to a job site which is an uninhabited property so I can keep our workers down to a minimum, otherwise I’m sure I’d be feeling a bit different.
“The industry has a massive contribution to the country’s economy and I’m sure that’s why the prime minister and many others are keen to get the workers back to site but to make that possible it would require much more than just the construction firms opening again.
“Obviously contractors need materials, so many trading merchants will be forced to follow and reopen as well. We’ve seen B&Q open already with many of the public lining up outside the stores, and whilst the active cases in the country are still in the hundreds of thousands, I don’t feel we should be doing anything more to encourage people to be going out any more than they need to.
“Additionally, employees in the construction industry can have actively social work days, meet with lots of different people, sometimes from other areas, and share tools and equipment. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to maintain the social distancing measures. I think it’s a little too soon for the industry myself.”
Can I refuse to return to work if I feel unsafe?
If you have coronavirus symptoms or are particularly vulnerable to the virus, such as those over 70s and those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes or asthma, the government advice is that you should continue to stay at home and shield, at least until the end of June.
If you don’t fit into these categories, you are still protected by official legislation that allows workers to remove themselves from a dangerous workplace without recrimination or repercussion. BAME employees are particularly being urged to take note of this.
Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 states: “An employee has the right not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by his employer.”
Of these conditions, the relevant one is: “In circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work.”
Again, the absence of specific advice here continues to cloud the matter – though actively enforced social distancing, disinfectants for shared equipment, hand sanitisers and the provision of PPE will certainly be among the conditions required for workplaces to safely reopen. Speaking on Sunday, Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce, said: “My strong and unequivocal advice to London businesses is not to change your plans for tomorrow. You have not been given sufficient information on how to get your employees safely to work, nor how to keep them safe while they are there.
“At the moment, it would be foolish for any business leader to encourage staff not already undertaking essential work to do anything but to continue to work from home tomorrow if they can do so.”
On Monday, the government informed essential retail workers: “If you remain concerned that your employer is not taking all practical steps to promote social distancing then you can report this to your local authority or the Health and Safety Executive who can take a range of action, including where appropriate requiring your employer to take additional steps.”
It urged discussion between employers and staff but added: “If individuals need advice, they should approach ACAS where they can get impartial advice about work disputes.”
It continued that it would be publishing further specific guidelines on how employers can make workplaces safe in due course.
Has your company done a risk assessment?
You have a right to ask if they have. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, “every employer shall provide his employees with comprehensible and relevant information on the risks to their health and safety identified by the assessment” and “the preventive and protective measures”.
The same legislation spells out that employers must make suitable assessments of the risks.
Richard Jones, of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, said: “Health and safety must come first. People shouldn’t re-enter workplaces until employers are certain that they’re properly managing the risk of infection and providing the support that workers need.
“Prevention has to be the focus because, if organisations don’t get this right, workplaces can become places of transmission.”
Will the furlough scheme continue?
Firms want to know if the government programme to pay the wages of workers under the furlough scheme will be extended beyond the end of June.
Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Businesses share the prime minister’s ambition to see more people return safely to work over the coming weeks.
“Companies will do everything they can to protect employees and customers, maintain social distancing and operate successfully as more sections of the economy are permitted to re-open.
“Businesses will need to see detailed plans for the phased easing of restrictions, coordinated with all nations across the UK and supported by clear guidance. It is imperative that companies have detailed advice on what will need to change in the workplace, including clarity on the use of PPE.
“Firms will also need to know that government support schemes, which have helped save millions of jobs in recent weeks, will continue for as long as they are needed so that they can plan ahead with confidence.
“The timing of further easing of restrictions must be guided by the public health evidence, but businesses need their practical questions answered so they can plan to restart, rebuild and renew.”
What if I cannot drive or cycle and have to take public transport?
This is unclear. In a letter to business secretary Alok Sharma, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband and shadow employment rights minister Andy McDonald asked: “The prime minister said [...] he wanted workers to avoid public transport and use cars, bicycles or walk to work but did not explain how. What if none of these are viable options?”
As of Monday afternoon, the government is asking workers to consider whether their journeys are essential before using public transport. It has promised to set out further guidance for passengers with more advice on how to stay safe during journeys later this week – though did provide advice on how to make your own face covering if such journeys prove to be essential.
Indeed, public transport itself could be affected after rail and Tube staff are advised by their unions not to work if they believe conditions are unsafe, amid warnings that “confused” government messages could have “lethal consequences”.
In a circular to members issued after a meeting of the union’s executive (NEC) on Sunday, the Rail and Maritime Transport (RMT) union said there was an existing agreement to discuss changes in working practices that would begin on Monday next week, and there was “total opposition” to imposing them a week earlier.
It said: “Given the confusion and mixed messaging generated by the government in recent days, RMT has no confidence in the ability of the government to manage lockdown or its easing.
“To be clear, no agreement has been made to change any working practices or social distancing arrangements from tomorrow.
“Therefore if two-metre social distancing cannot be maintained we consider it to be unsafe and members have the legal right to use the worksafe process.
“RMT will fully back any member who uses this process to ensure their safety.”