How workplaces can become Covid-secure

Boris Johnson says the government has been working on ‘new guidance for employers to make workplaces Covid-secure’.

On Sunday 10 May, Boris Johnson unveiled plans detailing how the lockdown measures that have been in place across England since Monday 23 March will start to ease.

The prime minister stated that he wished to provide “the shape of a plan” to address people’s fears for “their futures and the futures of their children” in order to give the public “a sense of the way ahead”.

One of the areas discussed by Mr Johnson in his address concerned how workplaces may operate when workers are able to return.

He stated the government has been working on “new guidance for employers to make workplaces Covid-secure”.

What did the prime minister say about Covid-secure workplaces in his speech?

During his address, Mr Johnson began by recalling the previous advice given with regards to working from home, which outlined that workers should “only go to work if you must”.

However, the government’s advice has now slightly changed, as he said: “We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”

The prime minister said that if people do return to work, it would be advisable for them to “avoid public transport if at all possible” so as to “maintain social distancing”.

Mr Johnson then added that for those who are returning to work, their workplace environments should be adapted so that they are “Covid-secure”.

“And when you do go to work, if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle. But just as with workplaces, public transport operators will also be following Covid-secure standards”.

The prime minister also said that the government will be doing spot checks on businesses to make sure they are complying with the rules.

What is a Covid-secure workplace?

In his speech on Sunday evening, the prime minister did not go into exact detail explaining what it would entail to make a workplace Covid-secure.

However, several outlets have seen documents covering such guidance, detailing how businesses including hotels, restaurants, factories and warehouses will operate in “Covid-secure” environments.

On Monday 4 May, the BBC reported that it had seen one of seven draft documents outlining plans to ease lockdown restrictions in workplaces.

This guidance reportedly included implementing additional hygiene procedures, putting up physical screens and having employees use personal protective equipment when they are unable to remain 2m apart.

“However, the section marked PPE contains only a promise that ‘more detail’ will follow,” the BBC added.

BuzzFeed News reported that it had seen all seven of the draft documents drawn up by ministers.

These documents reportedly pertained to workers in seven different workplace settings: hotel and restaurant workers, people who work in other people’s households, factory employees, outdoor workers, shop workers, office workers and those who work in vehicles, it stated.

In the section providing general guidance for all workplaces, it outlined measures including having workers wash their uniforms on site rather than at home, staggering the arrival and departure times of employees, introducing “one-way flow routes” through buildings, introducing handwashing and hand sanitation areas and entries and exits to buildings and regulating the use of corridors, lifts and staircases.

For the section on hotels and restaurants, it stated that all food and drink businesses must only serve takeaway orders, workstations must be spaced 2m apart where possible, visitors should use hand sanitiser and customers should pay using contactless methods.

For workers who operate in other people’s homes, it said that households should leave all of their internal doors open, the number of workers working within a confined space should be limited and when a job is repetitive, the same worker should be allocated to the same household, such as in the case of a household cleaner.

According to BuzzFeed News, the documents stated that in factories and warehouses, only essential staff should be on site and work areas and equipment should be cleaned regularly, among other measures.

Meanwhile, the guidelines said that in shops, the number of customers allowed to enter at any one time should be limited and returned items should be kept separate from other merchandise on the shop floor.

What have trade unions said about the guidelines on Covid-secure workplaces?

Following the reports of the government’s proposed plans for creating Covid-secure workplaces, several union leaders warned that the guidelines had been “thrown together in a hurry” and could put people at risk.

The TUC referred to the use of language in the documents, noting that the guidance repeatedly says “employers should consider” actions such as social distancing and providing handwashing facilities, warning that the documents suggest individual employers could decide to ignore this advice.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said that “safe working will not be guaranteed” underneath these plans, stating that unions could be expected to support the government’s guidance without any recommendations regarding the use of PPE.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect union, added that while the nation wants to return to work, “there is no point in easing the lockdown if the guidelines put people at risk, potentially causing a spike in cases and another full-scale lockdown”.

John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB Union, said the guidance was “thrown together in a hurry and it shows”.

“They cannot just flick a switch, say it’s safe to work within two metres of other people without PPE and expect them to head merrily off to work,” he said.

He added unions and employers had been given only 12 hours to respond to the draft guidelines which “means crucial changes will not be made”.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove previously said that the government is “consulting with employers and unions, professionals and public health experts to establish how we can ensure that we have the safest possible working environments”.

During Sunday evening’s speech, Mr Johnson added that he will be “setting out more details in Parliament” on Monday 11 May before taking questions from the public in the evening.

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