The Government has come under criticism for confusion and a lack of clarity on its latest guidance on the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a televised address on Sunday, Boris Johnson announced a change in policy that those who cannot work from home, for example in manufacturing and construction, should go back to work from the following day (Monday), but should avoid using public transport.
On Monday the return date was changed to Wednesday. Guidelines developed in consultation with unions and businesses on safety and social distancing at work were published late on Monday, and for public transport on Tuesday.
The policy change put England out of step with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which continued to advise people to stay at home.
Business groups cautiously welcomed plans for a phased return to work but stressed the need for clear advice on safety and to put health first.
The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health said that before businesses could open they should conduct thorough risk assessments, and published its own guidance. The IOSH said these measures likely to be needed to make sure premises were safe to open included redesigning processes to allow for physical distancing, and making sure there was adequate ventilation, plant inspection, hygiene arrangements and protective equipment. Awareness training should also be factored in, and one-way systems around buildings should be considered to avoid people’s paths crossing. “Prevention has to be the focus because, if organisations don’t get this right workplaces can become places of transmission,” said Richard Jones, IOSH head of policy.
Make UK chief executive Stephen Phipson said: “The government is encouraging those manufacturers who have not continued to operate to return to business. We cautiously welcome this. However, 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.”
He added: “In many parts of manufacturing people will need to work much more closely than 2m apart. It is vital that the guidance is explicit about how this may be achieved safely. Where this requires protective equipment, employers across the country are seeking clear advice on what products are needed, what standard they should be produced to, and confidence that they can be sourced in ways which does not reduce supply to the NHS, care homes and front line workers.”
CBI director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said: “Businesses are keen to open and get our economy back on its feet. But they also know putting health first is the only sustainable route to economic recovery. The message of continued vigilance is right.”
She added: “This announcement marks the start of a long process. While stopping work was necessarily fast and immediate, restarting will be slower and more complex. It must go hand-in-hand with plans for schools, transport, testing and access to PPE.”
She said that financial support would need to evolve for sectors moving at different speeds, with some remaining in hibernation. She called for business, government and employee representatives to work together “as part of a national effort built on openness and trust” and that this was “the only way to revive the UK economy and protect both lives and livelihoods.”
British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said: “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.”
A poster for firms to display in the workplace to show they have followed the guidance: