A large part of the economy remains closed due to fears that businesses may not be able to adequately protect their workers, but the government wants businesses to return to work when possible to cushion the blow ‘economy.
The government is expected to announce its latest decision on the extension of the foreclosure conditions on May 7, although major loosening of the rules is hardly expected as health services remain under pressure.
However, the Prime Minister said on Thursday that he expected to present a “comprehensive plan” on how to move the UK economy and on childcare for workers, allowing travel to work and allowing safer work within companies.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma has gathered views from business and lobby groups on the guidelines to be implemented, detailing how the different sectors should adapt. The boards should cover different types of workplaces, such as factories, offices, stores, logistics, and outside work such as agriculture and mining.
While there is nothing legally preventing businesses from returning to work – with the exception of retail businesses and non-essential public places that have been explicitly closed – some businesses are concerned that they will suffer a backlash in the absence of a clear signal from the government.
Here is how the different anti-coronavirus measures could work:
Any work that cannot be done with social distancing should be done with workers standing back to back or side by side – rather than face to face. Work surfaces will be cleaned more regularly and shifts should be staggered to prevent large assemblies of workers at plant doors or in rest areas – where a distance of 2 meters will be imposed.
Car maker Vauxhall has made face masks and goggles mandatory at all times. Sources in other industries, however, said the government should not impose this across the country, given the need to prioritize personal protective equipment for the NHS.
There is little prospect of a mass return to work in offices in the coming weeks, with homework still being encouraged among those who can. However, for those who have to return to the offices, the offices will be spaced and departure times may be delayed to avoid peak hours on public transport.
The British are already familiar with the distance requirements in stores deemed essential by the government. The British Retail Consortium and the Usdaw union have developed guidelines covering issues ranging from limiting access to public toilets to installing protective screens at checkouts and permanently closing changing rooms in clothing stores to prevent contamination.
Warehouses and trucking companies are more in demand than ever because people are stuck at home. In warehouses, security practices are almost identical to those in factories, while delivery drivers who interact with consumers in the course of their work must wait for the customer to pick up the packages at a safe distance.
In farms, quarries and mines, workers should work side by side if they are unable to do their job within 2 meters of each other, and confined spaces such as cabins machinery should have windows open to allow ventilation. The sale of goods – such as farm produce – should not encourage crowds to gather, with online orders and deliveries recommended.
Some builders have faced protests against further work during the lockout, fearing that some parts of the work will be impossible to complete while maintaining a distance of 2 meters. However, Housing Minister Robert Jenrick last week made it clear to the construction industry that they should get back to work if possible. Builder Taylor Wimpey is making a custom face shield, which will attach to a work helmet and will be used at all sites for two-person tasks. Large sites such as the Hinkley Point C nuclear generating station will have split shifts to reduce overlap.
Transport and tourism
Although transportation is not considered to be one of the areas covered by the new Business Department directives, any significant return to work will require more public transportation. Bus and train companies hope the government will continue to fund these operations to allow them to operate with empty seats – an expensive decision – to maintain distances of 2 meters.
Any recovery in the airline industry is likely to depend more on international agreements. However, Hungarian budget airline Wizz Air said on Thursday that masks would now be mandatory on its flights, with limited flights to be resumed from Luton Airport on May 1. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary rejected the idea of leaving the middle seat empty on planes to maintain physical distance.
There is little hope that public gatherings will be allowed for months, given the emphasis on reducing the potential for the spread of coronaviruses. The JD Wetherspoon ad chain plans to reopen in June, although few analysts believe this is likely. Any reopening before the vaccine would require strict social distance and cleanup procedures – if clients could be persuaded to return.