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Safety concerns after PM waves on lockdown easing

Unions and Labour MPs say Tories 'gambling with people's lives' in cutting of 2m social-distancing rule

UNIONS and Labour MPs have expressed grave concerns over health and safety after Boris Johnson announced that Britain’s coronavirus “hibernation” would begin to come to an end.

The Prime Minister announced a relaxation of lockdown rules in the Commons but warned that the virus had “not gone away” and he would not hesitate to “apply the brakes” and bring back national or local restrictions if needed.

Mr Johnson’s statement included confirmation of the two-metre social-distancing rule being reduced to “one-metre-plus” from July 4 to aid the return of restaurants and pubs from the same day.

Hairdressers will also be allowed to reopen, and people from two households of any size should be able to meet in any setting, but indoor gyms are among the businesses which remain closed.

In a bid to justify the decisions, Mr Johnson said that, four weeks ago, an average of one in 400 people in England had Covid-19 whereas, at the beginning of June, the number stood at one in 1,700.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer backed him, saying: “I believe the government is trying to do the right thing, and in that we will support them.”

But back-bench Labour MP Richard Burgon, the former shadow justice secretary, said that the PM’s announcement is “really just about pleasing rightwingers on the Tory back benches.” He accused the government of “once again gambling with people’s lives.”

Mr Johnson said that Mr Burgon was wrong and that he preferred the “more constructive approach from the Labour front bench.”

Oldham Labour MP Debbie Abrahams pointed out that the Sage group of scientists had said that it was currently “inappropriate to reduce social distancing.”  

She asked Mr Johnson if it was not better to wait until the NHS test-and-trace programme is fully operational.

Mr Johnson said that he was “not at one” with her views on the scheme, which has repeatedly faced difficulties in its data collection and introduction of an app.

Unison union’s general secretary Dave Prentis said any “slow return to normal must happen safely. Squandering the lockdown sacrifices and progress made in the past three months would be foolish.

“All workplaces opening up must make proper risk assessments of the virus threat. Avoiding a second wave in the autumn and preventing the NHS, social care and other public services from being overwhelmed is vital.”

Transport unions Aslef, RMT, and TSSA warned of an increased risk of high coronavirus infections in reducing social distancing on public transport — and the “impossible” task of enforcing the one-metre rule.

In a joint statement, the unions said: “In these circumstances, diluting social distancing on public transport could increase risks, so we cannot support a change to the social-distancing measurement at the current time. 

“We wish to see a safe and sustainable increase in public transport as soon as possible, but not at the expense of worker and passenger safety.”

On Mr Johnson’s decision to fully reopen schools in September, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is not clear whether in less than three months the science will permit classes of 30. If social distancing of one metre remains in place, that will still be difficult for schools.

“Class sizes are already at record highs in secondary schools, but the current situation calls for groups around half that size.

“Government must support local authorities in making available public buildings and encourage teachers who have left the profession, often due to excessive workload, to return.” 

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