Ministers were today facing union warnings over walkouts if health and safety demands are not met when lockdown eases – as Keir Starmer jibed that PPE is not a ‘luxury item’.
The government is facing a furious backlash at its draft ‘road map’ for starting to loosen the draconian curbs strangling the economy and plunging the country into debt.
More people are set to be encouraged to edge back to work, with guidelines on how to minimise the risks. Other precautions will need to be in place if the two-metre social distancing rules cannot be maintained, while business will be told to close canteens, stagger shift patterns, spread out offices and stop people sharing equipment.
But unions and Labour are demanding much tougher protections, suggesting that otherwise people could simply refuse to show up for work.
The GMB, which has about 600,000 members, said the guidance did ‘not adequately protect workers and as a result many may refuse to work to avoid putting themselves and their families at risk’.
Rail unions have been particularly vocal in stating their members must not be put at risk on crowded trains without more guarantees from the government.
In a round of interviews this morning, Sir Keir lined up behind the warnings, saying the government must set a ‘national safety standard’.’
‘This is not just a reassurance exercise for those going back to work, it’s essential for the safety of the nation,’ he said.
‘If you don’t have the protective equipment, and that means that people get infected, we’re going to be right back where we started.’
He insisted protective equipment for workers is not a ‘luxury item’ that would be ‘nice to have’.
In other developments in the UK’s coronavirus crisis:
- Deaths from the virus rose by 288 on Sunday – the lowest daily figure since the end of March;
- Residents of the Isle of Wight were urged to sign up for a pilot scheme of a virus-tracking app;
- New figures revealed that 6.3million are having their wages subsidised by the state under the furlough scheme;
- The deputy chief medical officer raised hopes of an effective antibody test, saying the ‘overwhelming majority’ of recovered patients produced antibodies;
- Downing Street confirmed the Nightingale Hospital in London will be mothballed;
- Matt Hancock revealed that 85,186 tests were conducted on Sunday – the second day running the figure fell below his 100,000 target.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil the plan to the nation later this week, with Britain’s strict lockdown set to be eased
The government is believed to have warned industry groups that the restrictions could stay in place for six to 12 months – dashing hopes of a swift return to normal life.
Under the plans, shift will be staggered to limit the number of people at work at any one time and reduce rush-hour pressure on public transport. Access to communal facilities like photocopiers will be limited, areas of the floor will be taped off to keep people two metres apart and people could be barred from sitting opposite one another.
Hot desking will be banned and workers will not even be allowed to lend each other a pen for fear of spreading the virus.
As a result of the stringent measures, millions of staff will be told to keep working from home indefinitely ‘if at all possible’.
And firms have been told that ‘vulnerable’ people, including the over-70s, pregnant women and the severely obese, should work from home – even if this means finding them a new role.
Sir Keir said: ‘I sense that people are really worried about lifting of lockdown. They’re really worried about going back to work.
‘They need a high level of reassurance,’ he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Sir Keir said a national consensus would give ‘a degree of confidence’, adding: ‘The point that trade unions have raised is safety at work and there was a consultation document the government put out last weekend which was pretty vague, and it needs strengthening.
‘That’s why one of the principles I’ve set out today is a national safety standard.
‘I think people will want to know if I’m going back to work, is it a safe environment, what’s being done about social distancing, what are the hand-washing facilities, if I need protective equipment am I going to get it?
‘It’s that degree of reassurance.’
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Throughout this crisis the TUC has sought to engage constructively with ministers. But we cannot support the Government’s back-to-work plans as they stand.
‘We want new binding rules for employers to publish their risk assessment and action plan. We want clear guidance to set out the minimum standards that employers must meet in order to protect public safety. And we want ministers to outline a new tough approach to enforcement.
‘Unless the Government significantly strengthens its plans, safe working will not be guaranteed. The current proposals fail to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly. And they are an open goal for rogue employers, who will cut corners and put their workers – and the wider community – at risk.
‘We urge ministers to work with the TUC and unions to ensure people can make a safe return to work.’
Prospect union general secretary Mike Clancy said: ‘If the economy is to recover sustainably and safely then a return to work must be managed properly.
‘The question is how the advice from Public Health England is grounded in relevant evidence. The Government must provide absolute clarity on how workplaces can operate safely, and it must set out the evidence for its advice.
‘We all want to get back to work, but 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,’ he added.
John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB Union, said: ‘We desperately need to get the economy going and nobody is keener than GMB to get people back to work – but this guidance was thrown together in a hurry and it shows.
‘Giving unions and employers just 12 hours to respond is not good enough and means crucial changes will not be made. We cannot endorse crucial guidance if it is incomplete.
‘The guidance has to be clear on how safe working practice is to be enforced.
‘As it stands, there is nothing on PPE, nothing on enforcement to ensure workplaces are safe and nothing giving workers the assurances they need to get back to their jobs.’
The businesses were told that there will be a ‘gradual winding down’ of the restrictions after the winter.
The warnings of a year under restrictions are thought to have been influenced by fears among government medical advisers that the coronavirus is seasonal.
Matt Hancock orders health officials to find why certain groups including the overweight, men and ethnic minorities are more likely to die of coronavirus
An urgent review has been launched into whether obesity, ethnicity and gender raise the risk of death from coronavirus.
Matt Hancock has ordered health officials to trawl through the records of thousands of pandemic victims.
The Health Secretary said it was too early to confirm that weight was a factor but ‘data from around the world’ was suggesting a link.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool warned last week that obesity increased the risk of dying from the virus by 37 per cent.
Around three in ten adults in England are clinically obese – with a Body Mass Index above 30 – a rate among the highest in the Western world.
And Britain’s virus death toll, which rose yesterday to 28,734, is second only to Italy’s among European nations. Scientists believe obese patients are more at risk of serious complications because their immune systems are worn out after repairing cells damaged by excess fat.
Mr Hancock said: ‘Our knowledge about this virus grows daily and it appears some groups are more affected than others.
‘Emerging data from around the world suggests there could possibly be a relationship between obesity and the impact of Covid-19 on individuals.
‘It’s too early to say if obesity in itself is a factor or conditions associated with it – or there is not enough data yet to rule it out – so we need to approach any assumptions with caution.
‘Every death from this virus is a tragedy and behind each statistic is a name, a loss and a family that will never be the same again.’
An industry source said: ‘If it survives the winter, these measures will have to be in place longer.’
Other measures introduced will include safety guidance for ‘in-home workers’, including cleaners, cooks and plumbers, as well as people offering services like fitness trainers.
For example, companies should provide the same cleaner to the same house where possible and delivery companies should call residents rather than ringing the doorbell.
The measures will also encourage taxi drivers to use contactless payment where possible.
Meanwhile, retailers have been told to ask customers to ‘shop alone’ to prevent queues when high street stores finally reopen.
But there is no sign of any return for pubs and restaurants, except those offering takeaway services.
The plans will form a central plank in the Government’s proposals for the ‘second phase’ of the coronavirus crisis, which are set to be unveiled by Boris Johnson at the weekend.
Last night however, ministers were on a collision course with trade unions over the proposals, with leaders warning that staff could be ordered to down tools unless their safety is guaranteed.
Transport unions said that drivers could refuse to resume train and bus services.
One Government source said the opposition of the unions could be a ‘major problem’ in getting Britain back to work and ending the crippling lockdown that is costing the economy an estimated £2billion a day. However, businesses reserved judgment on the proposals, with bosses saying the plans did not reflect real life and lacked information about the kind of protective equipment staff will need.
Government sources last night indicated that ministers are set to roll over the lockdown for another three weeks when they review it on Thursday. The Prime Minister will then outline a ‘comprehensive’ plan to get Britain moving again at the weekend.
But the leaked documents on the planned return to work confirm that the ‘new normal’, as described by ministers, will bear little resemblance to our old life. In a video message yesterday, the PM suggested any lifting of restrictions will be very gradual, saying: ‘The worst thing we could do now is ease up too soon and allow a second peak of coronavirus.’
In the Commons, several Tory MPs urged a faster lifting of the lockdown. Sir Charles Walker warned Britain would suffer ‘a tidal wave of human misery’ if thousands of good firms were allowed to go to the wall.
Tory shop steward Sir Graham Brady urged ministers to act ‘with a view to removing restrictions and removing these arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible’.
But speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference last night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the first aim was to ‘protect the NHS so the NHS is always there to protect you and your family.’
Under the Government’s plans, all firms employing more than five people will have to draw up a detailed risk assessment of working conditions.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace yesterday said that firms would be allowed to break the two-metre rule on social distancing where it was unavoidable.
But he suggested that other precautions, such as plastic screens, might have to be installed in workplaces. However, the draft documents give few details to employers or unions, saying only that guidance on PPE ‘is to follow’.
The country could also see handwashing kits by doors, one-way systems in offices, train platforms and bus stops, and limits on the number of people in shops – many of which will go cashless.
Public transport stations would have two metre markers to keep social distancing, with one-way systems to prevent unnecessary contact.
TUC general-secretary Frances O’Grady said unions ‘cannot support the Government’s back-to-work plans as they stand’.
She also claimed that the lack of detail was ‘an open goal for rogue employers’.
Transport unions said it would be ‘completely unacceptable’ to increase rail services at present.
In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, the three main rail unions said: ‘We will not accept new working patterns that put the lives of railway workers and passengers at risk.’
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said public transport was already at the ‘maximum’ available capacity, with room for only 15 per cent of normal passenger numbers.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies will today call on ministers to offer subsidies and tax breaks to encourage working from home.
The independent think-tank also warns that peak fares might have to be increased to try to reduce overcrowding in the rush hour.
Business leaders called for clarity on issues such as PPE and whether firms can be held liable even if they fulfil their obligations to protect employees.
Director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce Adam Marshall said bosses ‘will want to know that they’re not going to be held liable for horrible things that may unfortunately happen if they’ve done everything in their power to keep their people safe’.
Forgotten victims of the corona pandemic: From a 7-year-old girl battling seizures to father-of-three who needs cancer surgery, the patients in limbo after their NHS treatment was put on potentially tragic hold
They are the forgotten victims of the corona pandemic — patients caught up in a devastating NHS crisis which is costing thousands of lives.
From a seven-year-old girl battling with seizures to a father-of-three who needs cancer surgery, every one of them has had their treatment put on hold while the NHS diverts resources to fight the virus.
And many of them believe it could result in their death.
Last Saturday, the Mail revealed the true scale of this emerging national tragedy.
Two million operations have been cancelled and an estimated 2,700 cancers a week left undiagnosed.
Lyla O’Donovan, 7, has a brain tumour and is ‘heartbroken’ the surgery she should have had last month is on hold because of the danger of catching Covid-19
In what doctors call the ‘collateral damage’ of Covid-19, nearly 1,800 extra deaths were recorded by the Office of National Statistics in one week last month, the highest number for nearly 20 years.
The Government wants hospitals to treat people in crucial need of medical help. But, because of the virus, operating theatres have been mothballed and wards closed.
For those who wait, the dreadful truth is that help may come too late.
Lyla O’Donovan, 7
Lyla has a brain tumour and is ‘heartbroken’ the surgery she should have had last month is on hold because of the danger of catching Covid-19.
The operation is to relieve pressure on her brain and stop her having seizures.
Her father, Paul, 35, a soldier from Co. Durham, says: ‘For every seizure she has, we don’t know the extent of the brain damage it’s doing.’
Reginald Waite, 82
The pensioner from Eaton, Cheshire, was diagnosed with cancer in March after a scan picked up a blockage in his bile duct, but has had a planned operation postponed.
Reginald, a retired electronics engineer, is worried his cancer will spread. ‘When are the hospitals going to treat people such as cancer patients and not just concentrate on Covid-19?’ he asks.
Reginald Waite, 82, from Eaton, Cheshire, was diagnosed with cancer in March after a scan picked up a blockage in his bile duct, but has had a planned operation postponed
Amelia Jones, 17
Amelia is missing the top of her skull because of emergency surgery after collapsing with a brain haemorrhage on January 3.
The craniotomy procedure was necessary to relieve pressure on her brain, but it has left Amelia with movement and cognitive difficulties.
Her prognosis is poor unless she has a further operation to replace part of her skull, a procedure called cranioplasty, which has been put on hold.
Her father Leighton, who is director of rugby at Marlow Rugby Club, says: ‘Amelia has a long way to go, but without this operation she can’t start.’
Amelia Jones, 17, is missing the top of her skull because of emergency surgery after collapsing with a brain haemorrhage on January 3
Kieran Crighton, 14
The wheelchair-bound teenager needs two operations — one on his leg to help him walk and another to drain fluid from his brain, but both are on hold.
Kieran, from North Ayrshire, has autism and was diagnosed with five brain tumours two years ago.
His mother, Senga, says: ‘I am very anxious for Keiran.’
Kieran Crighton, 14, needs two operations — one on his leg to help him walk and another to drain fluid from his brain, but both are on hold
Ceri Maddock Jones, 39
Mother-of-two Ceri was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer five years ago. Before the virus struck, she’d hoped to go on a med- ical trial.
‘The trials are the only option for me. Everything else has been exhausted,’ says Ceri, who lives in Ewell, Surrey, with husband Garry and their sons, Austin, six, and Leo, five.
‘I don’t want to die, for my sons’ sake. These trials were my last hope of keeping my family together a bit longer.’
Mother-of-two Ceri Maddock Jones, 39, was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer five years ago
Roland Monger, 39
Roland may have only months to live after his chemotherapy for the skin cancer he has been battling for four years was put on hold.
The university admissions manager from Torpoint, Cornwall, says: ‘It is my 40th in July.
I am aiming to make that. Maybe I will see the kids back to school in September.’
Roland Monger, 39, may have only months to live after his chemotherapy for the skin cancer he has been battling for four years was put on hold
Laura Beattie, 31
The fashion business owner, from Manchester needs a lung transplant after cystic fibrosis ravaged her own organs.
Laura has been on the transplant list for two years, but in March she got a letter saying her next test appointment had been ‘pushed back’ until August ‘because of coronavirus’.
Laura Beattie, 31, pictured left with sister Rachel, needs a lung transplant after cystic fibrosis ravaged her own organs
The risk of her getting an infection at the hospital filled with Covid patients is believed to have been the reason.
‘I am having monthly appointments over the phone, but the doctors can’t measure my lung function properly,’ she says.
Which means, crucially, they can’t assess whether it is declining because of the disease.
Chris Romney, 64, from Derbyshire, has advanced prostate cancer
Chris Romney, 64
The grandfather from Derbyshire has advanced prostate cancer and has had his surgery at Royal Derby Hospital postponed after facilities were given over to coronavirus patients.
Chris, a retired RAF fighter controller and Nato executive, now fears his life is on the line.
He said: ‘Cancer patients have been side-lined. Those like me who need urgent surgery face an increased risk of the cancer spreading, potentially fatally.’
Chris, who lives with his wife, Laura, says the hospital has told him opening up facilities to non-Covid patients will be a ‘long, complicated’ process.
Rob Martinez, 63
Rob, from Berkshire, suffers from osteoarthritis which is so severe he struggles to climb up and down stairs.
He needs both knee joints replaced, and was forced to take early retirement because of his pain.
Last year, he was given a date for his first knee replacement: April 15, at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey. Rob was overjoyed.
Rob Martinez, 63, from Berkshire, suffers from osteoarthritis which is so severe he struggles to climb up and down stairs
But then he got a call to say all operations had been cancelled for the next three months — starting from the day of his surgery.
‘There’s going to be such a backlog after all this I dread to think what’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘There’s a worry that something like a knee replacement will be forgotten.’
Andy Gower, 53
The businessman from Milton Keynes has only the slimmest chance of surviving his colon cancer if his operation is delayed.
He was due to have surgery this month, but it was cancelled when his hospital was turned over to Covid-19 patients.
Andy Gower, 53, from Milton Keynes, has only the slimmest chance of surviving his colon cancer if his operation is delayed
Now Andy, a father of three, has been told it may be seven weeks before he can have an operation on his stage-three cancer.
He says: ‘If I get the operation soon, I have a 75 per cent survival rate, which is quite good.
‘But if it has spread to stage four beforehand, then my chances go down to ten per cent.’