The draft proposal of protocols that had been released by the Boris Johnson’s government for partially opening up the country with the workers joining back to work has been severely criticized by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the country. Claiming the guidelines in the draft as inadequate and unclear, the labour body has urgently sought government’s clarification before any decision is taken to open up the economy. The country has been brought to a grinding halt by the lockdown imposed by the government in the third week of March in the wake of the rising number of coronavirus infections in the country. The lockdown, which is expected to continue to the first week of June, has caused massive economic damages to the British economy. Almost all manufacturing and trading establishments are shut down, with only a few service sector firms working in reduced capacity on account of a few of their employees being able to provide their services from home.
The British government, though reluctant to open up the economy soon fearing the second wave of infections, has been contemplating workplace social distancing rules for those employees who would be joining work on the easing of lockdown restriction. The pandemic has ensured that working and living would not remain the same, the way it was a few months ago. It seems imperative that people now would have to live and work under strict social distancing protocols for a long time before the situation becomes normal again. These rules, though well-known by now, are yet to be encoded in strict government guidelines which would help the companies in the country to implement them with ease.
The virus spreads through respiratory droplets, hence it has been considered essential that everybody should wear masks to protect themselves from the virus entering their air tracts. Similarly, authorities has also advised people to stand with at least two meters distant from each other. However, within an office, there may be people who would not adhere to those rules unless strictly enforced, which could eventually put a significant number of people at risk. There are fears looming up in the country that the reopening of economy at this stage would undo all the gains that have been achieved so far in the fight against the pandemic; And a second wave of cataclysmic infections, if any, could lead to a stricter lockdown which is expected to hurt the livelihood of people and economy further and in a much deeper sense. Addressing these concerns about the economy and the safety of common citizens, Trade Union Congress has written back to the government to provide more effective and clearer guidelines so that the working environment is safe, and the employees also feel secure before they return to work. The Trade Union Congress believes that the proposal needs to be much broader-based and cover far a greater number of scenarios than it presently does in addition to the clarity it must provide on the existing ones.
The bone of the contention between the Trade Union Congress and the government are the definitions of many of the important social distancing measures that the draft proposal contains. The Trade Union Congress alleges that the draft contains statements like “social distancing and handwashing ‘should’ happen”, which they stated is not a direction and a mere expectation and does not appear to have any force in it. The letter sent back to the government by the Trade Union Congress stated that drafts in its layout appears to lack sincerity and fails to instil confidence in people who are genuinely concerned about their safety and wellbeing. The letter further states that the employers in the country do want to act responsibly towards their employees, but the government's current proposals lack clarity and are not implementable in its current form. It is to be noted here that the Trade Union Congress has in fact made several suggestions to the government regarding the safe working environment protocols, before the draft guidance paper of the government came out. The union stated that it seems that the government has completely disregarded its suggestions.
The body believes that government’s draft proposal has seemingly left out several key issues which should have been addressed while drafting such a critical document. They are of the view that draft contains only generalized guidance and no specific guidelines regarding pregnant woman, who specifically as per the current regulation under health and safety laws cannot be put to work in an unsafe environment. Similarly, there is no enforcement mechanism that has been provided in the draft which leaves the room for many to indulge in undue practices and stay ignorant to the guidelines. The claims have been made that no specific information has been provided for PPE protection kits which might be critical for many people who work in highly vulnerable places, like supermarket cash counters, where two metres social distancing may not provide much protection.
There are several other critical issues that need to be addressed if the lockdown is to be eased. The government at this time is specifically focused on containing the spread of the virus but has also acknowledged the fact that the economy could not stay completely closed for long; sooner or later, it has to come back in action. Businesses and unions believe that the government must initiate a consultation process to draft guidance protocols with adequate legal force that would ensure the protection of people in every walk of life.