Draft rules laid out for UK workplaces to ease lockdown

Hot desking will be curtailed, staff canteens will stay closed and lifts kept half-empty in workplaces across the country under Boris Johnson’s plan to ease the lockdown in the coming weeks.

The proposals are among a list of guidelines in seven documents drawn up by the business department (BEIS) after consultation with executives, trade bodies and unions.

Companies will be expected to ensure staggered shifts and keep employees apart — both while at work and during breaks — with 2-metre distancing enforced by floor tape. Staff will be told to avoid sharing pens under the draft proposals, and steer clear of face-to-face meetings.

Workers dealing with customers in shops and bank branches must be protected by plastic screens and companies will be told to lay on more parking spaces so that staff do not have to rely on lifts from colleagues.

The papers, distributed privately on Sunday, are a crucial element of Mr Johnson’s announcement on Thursday on how Britain might adjust elements of the current restrictions to “get the economy moving” — in the words of Cabinet Office secretary Michael Gove on Sunday.

Workers dealing with customers in shops and bank branches must be protected by plastic screens © Neil Hall/EPA

They are intended to provide clear guidance from the government on how various different types of workplace — from factories to outdoor workers — should operate safely.

Office workers will be urged to work from home if possible for months to prevent the public transport system being overwhelmed, with monitoring of their “mental and physical health” by employers. Those who do return to offices will find their routines significantly changed.

Under the plans, millions of companies will have to draw up a Covid-19 “risk assessment” before allowing staff to return to work.

Every company with more than five staff is already obliged to produce a risk assessment that is kept regularly updated. Under the new plans they will all have to produce a new document looking specifically at how to maintain safe working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some business leaders said the proposal for risk assessments would impose fresh costs on small companies and could deter some from reopening during the pandemic.

“I think the language is quite scary,” said one executive. “It’s one thing for big companies that already have health & safety teams and unionised workplaces, but if you’re a small operator I could see some looking at this and thinking ‘I’m going to stay closed’.”

A member of staff at the Vauxhall car factory during preparedness tests and redesign ahead of reopening following the Covid-19 outbreak © Colin McPherson/Alamy

The Trades Union Congress last week called on the government to force all businesses to have risk assessments. But one union figure said the government needed to go further and insist that the reports were publicly available.

Guidance will include telling companies to limit the number of people sharing lifts. Graphics distributed by the government show lifts divided in four sections by yellow and black tape, with only one person in each corner.

Social distancing will have to be maintained whether on the shop floor, in shopping queues, or in communal spaces such as canteens or smoking areas.

However the guidance will say that during an emergency such as a fire alarm people will be able to temporarily breach the 2-metre distance guideline.

One major omission in the draft documents is any clear guidance on the use of PPE protective kit by workers, which may reflect uncertainty about the market availability of items such as face masks.

The papers insist on high levels of deep cleaning and sanitary practices within all workplaces, although the government will not specify the use of particular cleaning products or methods.

Workers sit at individual tables as they practice social distancing measures during a break at the Airbus assembly plant in Broughton © Paul Thomas/Bloomberg

People will be encouraged to shop alone, with retailers adopting outside queueing where possible and closing cafés.

Workers such as plumbers going into people’s homes will be ordered to make sure they bring their own cleaning products to ensure surfaces are disinfected afterwards.

Changes to workplaces, schools and public transport will be “staged” and not a “flick of the switch”, Mr Gove said.

Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said rail services will start to increase soon — a move that will anger transport unions. The “huge logistical task” will include one-way systems in transport hubs and spacing on platform, Mr Shapps said.

UK deaths from Covid-19 rose by 315 on Saturday to 28,446.

 

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