Coronavirus: Johnson prepares post-lockdown plan with new workplace rules

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

Boris Johnson will set out his plan to ease a nationwide coronavirus lockdown next Sunday, media reports said, as new guidance emerged on how to maintain social distancing in workplaces.

Stay-at-home orders imposed in late March are up for review on Thursday in Britain, one of the worst hit countries in the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government has already said the measures will be eased only gradually.

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 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.

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Shop or bank branch workers dealing with customers must be protected by plastic screens, according to the recommendations — although there is no detail on what kind of protective equipment other employees might require.

New guidance drawn up with company bosses and trade unions, seen by the BBC and the Financial Times, suggests office workers will be encouraged to stay at home for months to avoid overwhelming the transport system.

But where staff must come in, companies are being urged to stagger shifts, stop people sharing desks or stationery, step up hygiene measures, keep staff canteens shut and restrict the number of people in lifts.

People are currently being told to stay at home unless they need to work, buy essentials or take daily exercise, but they must stay at least two metres away from other people.

Maintaining this social distancing while restarting the economy brings huge problems.

“It won’t work in aviation or any other form of public transport, and the problem is not the plane, it is the lack of space in the airport,” said the chief executive of London’s Heathrow airport, John Holland-Kaye.

“Just one jumbo jet would require a queue a kilometre long,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the issue of whether employers would be held liable even if they fulfilled their obligations was one of the “key questions we’ve asked” after the draft plans surfaced.

Marshall told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We need as much specificity as possible so businesses can ensure they’ve taken all the steps they can in order to protect their people.

“And as much as possible we want to see consistency across the UK, it would be very confusing and costly for businesses if we saw different nations going in very different directions. They (bosses) will want to know that they’re not going to be held liable to horrible things that may unfortunately happen if they’ve done everything in their power to keep their people safe.

“Whereas by contrast, you’d want to see those employers who didn’t take adequate steps face the consequences of that so the question of legal liability is extremely important.”

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said the public “deserve to be levelled with” over a detailed plan for easing lockdown measures.

She told BBC Breakfast: “Government need to put in a range of measures – whether that is mass community testing, contact tracing, and also those things like potentially the face coverings.”

She said: “But also I think the public who have overwhelmingly stuck by these very tough lockdown rules over the last few weeks deserve to be levelled with and also want some hope for the future, so that’s why we’re urging the government to give much more detail, and face masks are one part of that.”

A total of 28,446 people have now died after testing positive for COVID-19 in Britain, almost on a par with Italy, Europe’s worst affected country.

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