‘WE ARE going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely,’ Tory PM Johnson said at a news conference at Downing Street yesterday morning.
In an extraordinary move, the government has washed its hands of responsibility for whether it is safe to return to work or not and shifted responsibility onto the bosses to decide what is or isn’t a safe working practice.
Giving the bosses the power for a forced return to work, he said: ‘On the first of August we will update our advice on going to work.
‘Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.
‘That could mean, of course continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees.
‘Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following Covid-secure guidelines.
‘Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe.
‘As we reopen our society and our economy, it is right that we give employers more discretion while continuing to ensure that employees remain safe.’
He then announced new powers for councils that will be able to close down premises, shut outdoor public spaces and cancel public events, enable central government to intervene at will to speed up closures, prevent people from leaving a defined area and impose local lockdowns by force.
He announced an extra £3bn for the NHS which doctors’ union the BMA stressed represents less than 3% of the NHS budget.
From 1 August, Johnson said most remaining leisure settings, such as bowling alleys, skating rinks and casinos, and close-contact services such as beauticians could resume. However, soft play areas and nightclubs will remain closed beyond that date.
Unions criticised the decision and raised fears that workers could feel pressured to return to workplaces even if they feel it is not safe.
‘The Prime Minister has once again shown a failure of leadership in the face of this pandemic,’ said John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB union.
‘Passing the responsibility of keeping the people safe to employers and local authorities is confusing and dangerous.
‘With fears of a second spike looming, bewildering advice, and a desperately underfunded health service – the prime minister’s talk of returning to normality by Christmas just seems phoney.’
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the government had ‘passed the buck’ on a big decision to employers.
‘We all want to get the economy up and running as quickly as possible. Returns to workplaces must happen in a phased and safe way,’ O’Grady said.
‘Getting back to work safely requires a functioning NHS Test and Trace system. Yet progress on test and trace is still patchy, and the government is still refusing to support workers who have to self-isolate by raising statutory sick pay from just £95 per week to a rate people can live on.
‘A safe return to workplaces also requires much greater investment in public transport if people are to be able to commute to workplaces.’