Treasury draws up plans to get Britain back to work within weeks

office space

A Treasury proposal to “get Britain back to work” includes plans to ensure that offices and workplaces are free from coronavirus.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is drawing up measures to allow non-essential businesses to reopen in a “safe and practical way”.

Businesses will have to put up signs telling workers to remain two metres apart from one another and instruct staff to go home if they have symptoms of Covid-19.

Companies will also be told to close “communal spaces” such as canteens, unless people are able to socially distance, and to ensure there is a widespread supply of hand-washing facilities and hand gel.

Train companies are drawing up plans to run an almost full timetable within three weeks, with the government telling operators to prepare for an 80 per cent weekday service from May 18 in case ministers take the decision to partially lift the coronavirus lockdown.

Boris Johnson is due back in Downing Street next week after recovering from the coronavirus at Chequers. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that Mr Johnson was “raring to go”. His return means he will be in post to decide how and when restrictions should be lifted. The prime minister has told allies that he is very cautious about easing restrictions and that his priority is to avoid a second wave.

There are also growing cabinet misgivings about the lockdown, with one minister comparing it to “house arrest” and saying that it must end soon to avoid the risk of permanent damage to the economy.

Business leaders are understood to have been told recently by one of Mr Johnson’s most senior advisers, Sir Eddie Lister, that the government was examining the possibility of people returning to work under broad categories of type of industry, age and region. The government has since indicated that it wants a UK-wide approach. Mr Sunak has spoken to finance ministers in France, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Australia about their approach to relaxing restrictions.

The government has identified a fourfold approach to easing the lockdown based on the approaches of other nations. It includes opening non-essential sectors, opening schools and changing working patterns, scaling up of testing and contact tracing and reinforcing hand washing and other protective measures. Ministers are examining preliminary steps taken by Germany, which has allowed small shops to reopen while observing social distancing. The first restriction that is likely to be eased is to allow the reopening of garden centres.

Last night it was reported that ministers were considering allowing people to socialise with a “cluster” of up to ten people including close friends and family. The approach, which is already being looked at in Scotland and Belgium, would require people to draw up a list of those they want to see, drawn from no more than two households. Ministers are grappling with how to enforce the system, according to the Daily Mail.

The lockdown extends until May 7, when the government is legally obliged to review the restrictions. Some could be eased next month, although government sources suggested that June was more likely. Today Ms Patel will urge people to continue following the social-distancing rules so that the government can ease the lockdown sooner.

The economy is also slowly recovering, with McDonald’s the latest big employer to confirm that it is considering reopening its restaurants for deliveries and drive-through customers and Aston Martin, Jaguar Land Rover and Vauxhall all opening their manufacturing facilities in the next few weeks.

Schools could reopen as early as June. Some members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies think there is evidence that children do not pass on the virus to each other. While it is still thought that full resumption of schooling would restart the epidemic, modelling is under way on options such as allowing only certain year groups each day or having a “two weeks on, two weeks off” system.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said: “The country has done incredibly well in adhering to social distancing and there is a danger as we go into yet another warm sunny weekend that people think that perhaps these graphs are showing that the peak is over. It isn’t over, we’re riding perhaps, we hope, a downward trend but it is by no means, no means established yet.”

Rail companies are understood to be considering measures including limiting access to stations and increasing staffing on platforms to control the number of passengers boarding each train. Industry sources said that train carriages might be able to safely accommodate only between 20 and 25 per cent of normal capacity to maintain social distancing.