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Boris Johnson's back-to-work message is 'recipe for chaos' with 'potentially lethal consequences', say unions

Parliamentary reporter

UNIONS and Labour have accused the Prime Minister of sending mixed messages about returning to work, which they say could have “lethal” consequences.

In his address to the nation today, Boris Johnson said that people who cannot work from home, such as builders and factory workers, should be “actively encouraged” to return to work from Monday, but that they should avoid public transport “if at all possible.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Boris Johnson’s statement will cause working people a lot of confusion and anxiety.

“The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe. So how can the Prime Minister — with 12 hours’ notice — tell people they should be going back to sites and factories? It’s a recipe for chaos.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the PM for encouraging millions of people to go to work when there is no safety plan in place, adding: “What the country wanted tonight was clarity and consensus, but we haven’t got either of those.”

John Philips, acting general secretary of the GMB, accused the PM of sending out “more mixed messages” by urging millions of people to go to work while saying that it was too early to ease the lockdown.

“If ministers want the economy moving again, we need strict rules on hygiene and social distancing, enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for everyone, and regulations employers can’t just ignore if they fancy it,” he said.

The RMT advised its members not to work if they felt unsafe.

The transport union warned that Mr Johnson’s message could see a surge in the number of passengers on the railways and Tube from tomorrow, breaching social  distancing measures with “potentially lethal consequences” for staff and the public.

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes had the same concerns about the number of people on transport, adding that the union “won’t allow our members to be used as Covid-19 cannon fodder.”

Dave Prentis, general secretary of public-sector union Unison, said that the government must ensure that the NHS and the care sector have guaranteed supplies of PPE and “a comprehensive test, track and trace programme in place before any mass return to work.”

Mr Johnson’s plans to possibly reopen schools next month was described as “nothing short of reckless” by an education union.

In his pre-recorded address, Mr Johnson said schools and non-essential shops would remain closed until at least June as the coronavirus transmission rate was still too high to significantly ease the lockdown that he imposed on March 23.

He said he hoped that primary pupils begin to go back to school in steps staggered by year groups “at the earliest by June 1” and that secondary pupils with exams next year get to have “at least some time with their teachers before the holidays.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the schools should only reopen when there were much lower numbers of active Covid-19 cases, with extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing in place.

There should also be a national plan for social distancing, hygiene and appropriate PPE, she added, and plans to protect staff and any vulnerable people they may live with.

Also during his speech, Mr Johnson granted unlimited exercise in England from Wednesday.

“You can sit in the sun in your local park, you can drive to other destinations, you can even play sports — but only with members of your own household,” he said.

Ministers hope that, “at the earliest by July,” some of the hospitality industry reopens if the evidence supports the move and distancing can be enforced, Mr Johnson also said.

He  announced that he would soon impose quarantine on people flying into the UK “to prevent reinfection from abroad.”

Fines for anyone who breaks social distancing rules will also be increased, and employers would be sent guidance to make workplaces “Covid secure,” he also said.

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