Unions and Employers united in criticism of confusing COVID-19 advice

While the TUC and leading employers' groups criticise confused government advice about returning to the workplace, charities are having to negotiate vague guidelines about how to operate after July 19.

An official offering face masks.

Many staff still do not feel confident about using public transport. (Photo: Stephen Furley, public domain via Flickr)

By Annette McGill

Unions, businesses and employers' organisations are lining up to criticse the government's advice on how to manage the return to offices after so-called 'Freedom Day' on July 19. The Government published updated safe working guidelines on July 14. The updated guidance has had virtually no publicity, leaving facilities managers poorly informed and confused about what actions to take.

Recipe for chaos

TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady called the new guidelines a recipe for chaos. She said: "We all want the economy to unlock as soon as possible. But these new back-to-work safety guidelines are a recipe for chaos and rising infections."

Grady said: "They have been published without proper consultation with unions or employers, just two full working days before restrictions end on Monday.

"Instead of providing clear and consistent guidance on how to keep staff safe at work, the government is abandoning workers and employers.

Employers body the Institute of Directors (IoD) agrees saying that the guidance "fails to inspire confidence in the return to work".

In a statement, the IoD's Policy Director, Roger Barker, described the government's guidance as "a series of mixed messages and patchwork requirements". 

Barker said: "Whilst it is right that companies should be allowed to take decisions based on their unique circumstances, it is vital that government provides businesses with best practice in developing their own policies. "

He said: "…business leaders are understandably confused as to the legal status that this guidance has and are concerned about vulnerability under health and safety legislation, as well as the validity of their insurance."

Face mask confusion

The question of when face coverings should be worn appears especially confused. The new guidance says: 

"Consider encouraging the use of face coverings by workers (for example through signage), particularly in indoor areas where they may come into contact with people they do not normally meet. This is especially important in enclosed and crowded spaces."

For the TUC, Frances said wearing face masks should not be optional. She said:  "Wearing face coverings should remain a legal requirement on public transport and in shops – it is not a matter of "personal responsibility", nor should it be left to individual employers to decide."

Leading medical organisations have written to the Prime Minister to call for clear guidance on face masks. The joint letter from the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and others says: "With continued pressures on staff and rising case rates, the use of face masks, social distancing and regular handwashing by the public must stay in place."

The letter adds: "As our understanding of COVID-19 evolves, national guidance and support must keep pace."

Return to work or continue to stay at home. Throw away your masks or continue to wear them. Today's long-awaited guidance from Government has done little to dispel that confusion. -- IoD Policy Director Roger Barker

Meanwhile major retailers, including Tescos Sainsbury's and Waitrose, have announced that they will ask customers to continue to wear masks. 

Transport concerns

London's Mayor, Sadiq Khan, yesterday announced that he had asked TfL to retain the requirement to wear face coverings on public transport as a 'condition of travel' on all Transport for London services after July 19. 

Tube travel has risen significantly and is now estimated to be at around 40-45 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and bus ridership at around 60-65 per cent. 

The move was welcomed by business leaders. John Dickie, Chief Executive of business lobby group London First, said: "This is the right call. Keeping masks on London's public transport network in the short-term is a sensible and proportionate measure as the country unlocks, which our members tell us will boost their employees' confidence. Many commuters will be making their first journey back into central London for over a year and we want them to feel safe and confident when travelling."

Other city mayors don't have the legal authority to require face coverings on local transport services.

Government claims vague advice reflects 'diversity of businesses'

In response to the wide criticism, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick today said the guidance reflected "the diversity of businesses". Jenrick told Sky News: "We're saying there will be some situations where businesses might choose to pursue these policies using their best judgement across the country." 


Tags COVID-19