Britain’s trade union body has warned the government’s draft guidelines for getting employees back to work during the coronavirus crisis will put people’s health at risk and cannot be supported in their current form.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), criticized the non-binding guidelines for letting employers decide what is safe when it comes to distance between workers, cleaning practices and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Labor threw its weight behind the TUC’s concerns. Andy McDonald, the shadow employment rights minister, criticized the fact that unions had been being given only hours at the weekend to respond to the proposals.
“The entire country wants the government to succeed, but this is not how to build confidence or trust,” he said.
“The proposals talk about what they expect employers to‘ consider ’, and say social distancing and handwashing‘ should ’happen, where possible, to help – with insufficient attention being paid to PPE. Taking the necessary steps to protect employees is not a matter of expectation or guidance, it is the law. ”
Speaking at business department questions in a virtual Commons debate, McDonald asked for confirmation that risk assessments would be published, and lodged with the Health and Safety Executive.
Amanda Solloway, the science minister, replied that her department was negotiating with employers and unions, to “come to a shared view” about the issue.
Boris Johnson is preparing to set out on Sunday how restrictions can be eased but before that business groups and trade unions have been sent draft guidelines for how to protect people if physical distancing rules cannot be followed. Suggestions include physical shields, time limits on face-to-face meetings, and staggered shift times.
In a letter to Alok Sharma, the business secretary, O’Grady said unions would have “no hesitation” in telling their members that the guidelines cannot protect workers unless they were stronger strengthened – a move that could lead to many refusing requests to get back to work.
The letter, seen by the Guardian, says: “Working people need to see that the government is genuinely committed to protecting their health and safety. At present, this guidance fails to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly and is an open goal to the worst of employers who want to return to business at usual – which will put their workforce at risk…
“We want to be able to recommend the government’s approach to safe working to our members and the wider workforce. As it stands, we cannot. ”
Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, said on Monday employees could return to work with physical shields to separate them from colleagues, personal protective equipment (PPE) and limits on time spent close to each other.
He said there was a range of measures that could be used in workplaces where maintaining a two-meter distance between colleagues was not possible.
Wallace told the BBC that supermarket shoppers were not two meters away from those working at the tills but were instead separated by physical shields. “Potentially, shields or PPE is a way forward,” he said.
Wallace also highlighted the “use of time” as another tool: “You could be closer than two meters but not for long,” he said.
According to sources who have seen the guidelines, other workplace measures include reduced hot-desking and staggered shift times. The document urges employers to minimise the number of staff using equipment and maximise home working.
However, a section marked PPE contains only a promise that more detail would follow. It also does not go into detail about how pregnant women, older workers and other vulnerable groups should be treated, and appears to leave many decisions up to employers about what they consider safe.
For example, one section says employers could consider limiting how many people are in a vehicle, without saying how many the government considers would be safe.
In her letter to Sharma , O’Grady said the government appeared to have “entirely disregarded” TUC suggestions about how a safer system of working could operate in practice.
“This has left me with no choice but to write to you directly to ask that you make immediate and substantial changes to your approach,” she said. “The consultation papers suggest government proposes a return to business as usual, with no new requirements placed on employers beyond existing health and safety law, and no government commitment to increased health and safety enforcement or public awareness of their health and safety rights.
“We believe this approach will risk the safety and wellbeing of workers as they return to work. If the guidance is not significantly strengthened, safe working will not be guaranteed, and unions will have no hesitation in saying so publicly and to our members. ”
She said some of the proposed guidance was in some cases weaker than existing legislation and listed the TUC’s most pressing concerns:
) The non-binding nature of the guidance, which repeatedly suggests that “employers should consider” actions such as enabling physical distancing or providing hand washing facilities. “We believe that this leaves far too much to employer discretion,” she said
The lack of recommendations on PPE
The failure to require employers to publish their risk assessments, nor to agree them with recognized unions
An absence of reference to enforcement mechanisms such as the Health and Safety Executive’s existing powers to issue prohibition notices, and to workers’ existing rights to refuse to work in situations which present a serious and imminent danger to them
A lack of specific guidelines for those in vulnerable groups, for example, pregnant women, which appears to suggest that they can be expected to work in unsafe environments, in violation of their existing rights under health and safety law.
Other concerns include the lack of detail on how workers can be expected to travel safely to work, how Parents without childcare can be expected to work while nurseries and other settings are closed, and the rights of those who care for someone who is shielding and on future access to the job retention scheme.