TUC accuses ministers of ‘washing their hands’ of workers’ safety

The TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady has accused ministers of “washing their hands” of employees’ safety, after unions and business groups were told they would not be consulted on guidance set to come into force on 19 July in England.

O’Grady, who represents 5.5 miljoen werkers, has written to business secretary Kwazi Kwarteng to express the TUC’s concerns.

“We have real fears that clear, detailed guidance for employers will be replaced by vague exhortations to do the right thing, resulting in confusion," sy het gese.

“We believe this amounts to the government washing its hands of its responsibility to ensure workplace safety.”

As businesses prepared to reopen after last year’s lockdown, the then business secretary Alok Sharma carried out detailed discussions with representatives of employers and unions, about how best to make workplaces Covid-secure.

Hundreds of pages of sector-specific guidance were then published, including everything from mask wearing to safety screens, hand sanitiser to staff rotas.

With less than a fortnight to go before 19 Julie, the Guardian understands business groups and unions have been told by officials at Kwarteng’s department that they will not be consulted on what will replace the present Covid-secure rules.

Some believe the government now hopes to shift responsibility back onto individual employers as much as possible, in line with the wider ethos of “freedom day”.

Boris Johnson has described 19 July as an inflexion point, when the “diktat” of government regulations will be replaced by personal responsibility.

The government has already made clear that the 1m distancing rule will be scrapped, mask wearing will no longer be mandatory in public places, and the guidance that office workers should work from home where possible will no longer apply.

But it is unclear how much of the wider Covid-secure guidance will be withdrawn, and what the government plans to replace it with.

Downing Street has suggested, byvoorbeeld, that it hopes a culture of wearing masks in some situations out of politeness will replace legal penalties.

O’Grady warned, “We all want working life to get back to business as usual. But as restrictions are lifted and increasing numbers return to their workplaces, it is crucial that we get workplace safety right, and give workers and members of the public confidence.

“This is how we get the country up and running again – not hobbled by rising infections and enforced self-isolation taking workers out of workplaces,” she added.

She pointed out that many workers will still only have the protection of one dose of the vaccine, or none at all, pregnant women cannot be vaccinated, and some workers will have compromised immune systems.

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “Our members have been on the frontline for the last 16 months literally risking their lives and the health of their families, while keeping the UK operating.

“To not even consult their representatives in order to better understand workers’ worries and concerns is not only arrogant but further undermines the public’s confidence in the government’s strategy.

Workplace guidance is just one aspect of how the world will look after 19 July that remains unclear: business groups are also pressing the government to commit to continuing to fund regular workplace testing for Covid.

The CBI’s director of policy John Foster welcomed hints from the chancellor on Thursday that the government will look again at the operation of the test and trace app, to try to reduce unnecessary self-isolation – something businesses have been calling for.

But he added: “There are other areas where clarity from government can help to boost confidence, byvoorbeeld, knowing whether workplace testing will continue beyond July.

“Responsible employers can play their part too, by having good, collaborative conversations with their employees and informing customers how they are reopening safely.”

Health campaigners have also urged the government to publish new guidance for clinically vulnerable people about how they should protect themselves as cases surge in the coming weeks.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was approached for comment.

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