UKs ‘back to work’ plan puts business and unions at odds

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Trade unions and business leaders were at loggerheads on Monday night over Boris Johnson’s “back to work” strategy, following claims that employees’ lives could be put at risk as the British prime minister tries to restart the economy.

Labour leader Keir Starmer joined unions in demanding that businesses should be required to publish coronavirus risk assessments, with tough enforcement against reckless employers.

But business leaders say that publishing workplace risk assessments would be overly bureaucratic for small companies that already adhere to high standards of health and safety regulation.

They also want Alok Sharma, business secretary, to set out a clear legal framework for the reopening of workplaces, in an effort to allay fears of massive lawsuits if a staff member were to fall ill or die from coronavirus.

The tension came as Mr Sharma finalised seven documents intended to show how Britons could safely return to work, and Mr Johnson prepared to publish a “road map” charting a gradual route out of the lockdown.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the unions could not support Mr Sharma’s draft plan, claiming that “safe working will not be guaranteed”.

“We want new binding rules for employers to publish their risk assessment and action plan,” she said. “We want clear guidance to set out the minimum standards that employers must meet in order to protect public safety. And we want ministers to outline a new tough approach to enforcement.”

Every company with more than five members of staff has to draw up a risk assessment but under Mr Sharma’s draft plans they will also need to provide a document looking specifically at how to maintain safe working during the pandemic.

Sir Keir joined Ms O’Grady in insisting that the risk assessments be put into the public domain. But one senior business leader said: “The TUC seem to be coming to this from the angle that businesses will put employees in harm’s way. I don’t think that’s fair. It will be time-consuming and small companies are not set up to do this stuff. It will be back-breaking for some of them.”

What happens if someone contracts coronavirus and gets seriously ill or dies? Are you, as an employer, liable?

Business is also pressing Mr Sharma to set out a clear legal framework to ensure that employers that follow guidelines and do their best to protect staff are not sued if they reopen their workplaces.

Adam Marshall, head of the British Chambers of Commerce, said virtually all companies would do everything possible to follow the rules and keep staff safe, but they were anxious of the legal risk.

“What happens if someone contracts coronavirus and gets seriously ill or dies?” he asked. “Are you, as an employer, liable?” Lawyers said the less explicit the government guidance was, the greater the risk for employers of being sued.

James Davies, a founder partner of Lewis Silkin’s employment practice, said: “An employer is liable for injury [or illness] caused to an employee in the course of employment if it is in breach of its duty of care to that employee, so has acted negligently or is in breach of health and safety duties.”

But he said this was not a “strict liability” and that if an employer followed the guidance, conducted a health and safety assessment, and possibly spoke to a health and safety specialist, they were unlikely to be successfully sued.

Mr Sharma is expected in the coming days to give guidance on the wearing of personal protective equipment in the workplace — missing from initial draft documents — in a way that did not have an impact on the NHS’s requirement for clinical-level equipment.

The workplace guidance — part of an overall strategy for a slow exit from the lockdown — will see hot-desking curtailed, staff canteens largely closed, lifts kept half-empty, and floor tape keeping workers apart.

Retailers that reopen will be expected to employ “social-distancing champions” who will advise customers on how to behave.

Meanwhile, it emerged on Monday that more than 6m UK workers — more than a fifth of the workforce — are having part of their wages paid by the state through the job retention scheme.

By midnight on May 3, 800,000 employers had applied to use the scheme, which allows companies to put staff on furlough with the government covering 80 per cent of their regular pay