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Exempted workers must be kept safe, unions warn

Confusion over half-baked emergency measures self-inflicted, ministers told

WORKERS exempted from quarantine must have confidence that their workplaces are Covid-safe, unions demanded today.

As the government sparked confusion with its announcement of emergency measures to excuse “critical” workers from self-isolation if “pinged” by the NHS Covid app, unions slammed the government’s failure to consult those at the sharp end.

Ministers had indicated that firms in some front-line sectors as well as local authorities could apply to use daily testing of workers as an alternative to self-isolation.

But unions warned that the hasty and ill-defined measure would not prevent shortages, closures and cancellations as more and more workers needed to quarantine or became ill as a result of the government’s premature ditching of Covid-19 safety measures.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told ministers that they needed to be clear about who they class as critical workers.

She said: “The current proposals don’t reflect the real world because businesses don’t exist in isolation — they are part of complex supply chains.

“The government has got into this mess by failing to consult unions and employers in advance of reopening the economy.

“None of us want businesses and services to grind to a halt, but if workers are being told not to self-isolate they need to know their workplaces are Covid secure.

“Ministers must replace the current inadequate back-to-work guidance with legally binding rules on face coverings and enforce the law on workplace safety properly.

“And they must bring back free workplace testing and ensure there is decent sick pay for all.”

Transport union RMT union predicted that cancellations of train services next week as a result of staff shortages — later confirmed by a number of operators — would result in potentially dangerous overcrowding.

General secretary Mick Lynch said: “There is a real danger of a headlong rush into these new measures driven by this inept government which could make a bad situation even worse.

“Before any implementation of new procedures, employers need to produce proper risk assessments agreed with the union that consider and control the enhanced risks to all staff and ensure that the principal objective of workplace safety is maintained and fully enforced.”

The Unite union said that front-line workers were becoming increasing exasperated with the government’s failure to get a grip on surging numbers of Covid-19 infections and the knock-on effect of hundreds of thousands of workers needing to quarantine.

Matt Draper, Unite’s national officer for drivers and warehouse staff, said: “Our members are sick and tired of the government’s piecemeal approach to resolving the problems in the sector.

“Workers don’t blame the NHS app for requiring them to self-isolate, they blame the government for the rise in infections, which has been made far worse by its totally misguided decision to end all legal restrictions.

“Already our members are reporting that companies are reducing safeguards in the workplaces such as enhanced cleaning regimes, which is dangerous and is a result of the mixed messages that the government is issuing on a daily basis.

“Allowing front-line workers such as lorry drivers not to self-isolate if pinged may alleviate short-term supermarket supply issues, but it will do nothing to reduce infection rates.

“What is needed is clear leadership from the government which includes workers needing to be paid properly to self-isolate, masks… to be made mandatory once again on public transport, retail and hospitality venues and an urgent U-turn on the decision to end the supply of free tests to employers.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) also urged ministers to clarify who may qualify for exemption from self-isolation, with chairman James Jamieson saying that councils were working hard to keep services running.

However, he said, “the large numbers of close contacts being required to self-isolate is having an impact on some council services due to staff shortages.”

Bin collections appeared to be the worst affected, but road repairs, leisure facilities and park maintenance could also be hit, the LGA said.

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