Business groups and HR experts have urged employers not to ‘rush in and regret it later’ despite the prime minister’s latest instruction that those who cannot work from home should now be “encouraged to go to work”.
In a televised speech to the nation yesterday evening (10 May), Boris Johnson outlined his “conditional plan” for getting the country back to work. While he instructed those who could to continue working from home, the prime minister said people who could not work from home – including those in the construction and manufacturing sectors – should return to the workplace this week.
Johnson is expected to go before parliament later today to set out in more detail his plans for reopening the economy, which will include new guidance for employers on how to make places of work “Covid secure”, which will come into force on Wednesday.
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The prime minister added that schools in England would not be opened until 1 June at the earliest, and that workers should avoid public transport where possible, prompting many business groups to criticise the feasibility of the plans.
Referencing the implication of Johnson’s address that some workers should return to work today (11 May) despite the instruction only being delivered at 7pm on 10 May, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe. So how can the prime minister – with 12 hours’ notice – tell people they should be going back to sites and factories? It’s a recipe for chaos.”
Johnson also said that some hospitality businesses might be able to open in June if the outbreak appeared to be under control.
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But further confusion has been voiced around which sectors were expected to recommence operations and how employers could maintain social distancing, leading some experts to urge employers not to rush the return to work.
“Don’t rush in and regret it later!” Neil Carberry, CEO of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, tweeted. Speaking to People Management, Carberry said that while no employer could be asked to guarantee coronavirus would never be transmissible in their workplace, they could “still be asked to do what is reasonable to ensure staff are protected”.
He advised businesses to revisit their risk assessments immediately and introduce an assessment around viral pandemics and how prepared their workforce was for reopening sites. "Some of the factors in that assessment aren't actually about health and safety in your workplace but about how people will get to work, whether it's having a premise without car parks or concerns about public transportation," he said.
“I think you will store up problems within your workforce if you don't involve staff in that process.”
Yesterday’s announcement – which included a shift by the government away from its ‘stay at home’ message to the more flexible ‘stay alert’ messaging – also appeared to put England at odds with the other UK nations. The devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have both said they would not be taking any similar steps to relax lockdown. Speaking to the BBC, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said: “I am not, at this stage, asking anybody who is not working to go back to work.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, did not directly answer when asked whether someone living in Wales but working in England should stay at home or travel to work, but said the government would not “cut across the advice from the Welsh executive” and it was “very clear” that in the construction and manufacturing sectors you could come back to work in England.
Asked if employees would be allowed to walk out of workplaces if they felt unsafe, Raab said “it’s very difficult to answer that hypothetical” but that “people should take their lead from their employers”.
Perry Timms, founder and chief energy officer of PTHR, described the government’s approach as “somewhat confusing”, but said HR professionals should focus on Johnson’s call for solidarity between employers and employees.
Timms urged the government to stick to clear principles and certainty where possible and to invite employers and employees to work together to make arrangements where returning to work was deemed possible. "Whatever the government advice, it needs to give them time to communicate, work through with each other, discuss concerns and work through individual circumstances such as shielding, isolation, anxieties, transport issues, childcare and more," he said.
"Confidence and comfort levels are their lowest ever and now is not the time for uncertainty on top of that."
David D’Souza, membership director for the CIPD, said the prime minister’s speech did not change the key principles that those able to work from home should continue to do so. But beyond that, any return to work needed to be “planned, gradual, safe and mutually agreed”, he said.
“To do anything otherwise risks not only the employer's relationship with the people they employ but also the lives of people they have a duty of care to,” he said. “Just because people may be able to return to previous ways of working, does not mean they should.”
Sue Evans, interim director of HR and organisational design for West Sussex County Council, said businesses should carefully consider how to bring people back into workplaces. "This [government announcement] is a slight easing of restrictions, and our priority is the safety of the workforce, which is why we're undertaking risk assessments for staff," she said.
"Unless we actually deal with this on an individual basis, we're going to be putting people in a very difficult and risky situation.” She stressed that every employee had their own unique circumstances and needed their own risk assessment.