Coronavirus: Questions over PPE as draft post-lockdown workplace rules revealed

May 04, 2020

Businesses are still waiting to be told whether personal protective equipment (PPE) will be required for employees who are unable to maintain a two-metre distance when they return to the workplace.

Draft government guidance for safe working was circulated to around 180 employers, unions and business groups on Sunday, setting out the requirements in seven workplace settings, including factories, hospitality, for those working in people's homes and in vehicles, and outdoors.

However, the TUC later said the proposals "fall far short of giving any guarantees to workers about their health and safety" - and risk a second spread of the disease.

The guidelines are part of a staged process to ease lockdown measures and try and help restart the economy in the coming months as the COVID-19 health emergency eases.

It includes requirements to:

  • Maintain the "safe" social distance of two metres, demarcating office space with tape on floors and desks, and restricting access to lifts.
  • Where maintaining a two-metre gap is not possible however the guidelines say that the use of PPE should be considered, along with extra cleaning measures, and the use of screens as is the case in supermarkets.
  • Reduce congestion in offices - shifts are likely to be staggered and many staff who can work from home will be required to continue to do so for many months to come.
  • The guidelines set out requirements to improve hygiene and sanitation but do not stipulate what products should be used.

For all seven work environments, however, the section for PPE says only that more detail will follow.

The concern for employers is that they may struggle to source sufficient supplies given the soaring global demand, and could find themselves in competition with health and social care providers.

The draft guidance says companies should apply the guidance to their specific circumstances and then compile a "risk assessment" for each of their premises and work settings before staff can return.

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There is significant concern among employers and unions that the process may leave small and medium-sized companies with limited resources exposed to liability should illness spread.

There is also anxiety that without clear guidelines on PPE, employees may not have the confidence to return.

For larger companies, a phased re-opening of the economy envisioned by the government will also need to balance supply and demand.

Car manufacturers are under pressure to reopen factories but without a similar process for car showrooms, which have the extra complexity of social distancing for companies, there is likely to be little demand.

Sources with knowledge of the consultation process told Sky News that companies had 12 hours on Sunday to respond to the consultation using a confidential online process run by consultants Ernst & Young.

The responses will be examined and are expected to be discussed by the cabinet before being presented publicly later in the week, possibly before the Bank Holiday weekend.

The prime minister has promised to set out a detailed plan for how the UK will ease the current restrictions this week, with a televised address to the nation expected on Sunday.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady told Sky News' Ian King Live: "The documents we saw for the first time on Sunday fall far short of giving any guarantees to workers about their health and safety.

"That's not just bad for workers and their families, it risks a second spread of the infection too.

"We need a little less discretion - employers being told they can 'consider' whether there's social distancing or even soap and sanitiser at work - and a bit more robust direction and tough enforcement...

"We need to know that we've got enough inspectors on the ground to work with unions and employers and get this right."

Ed Miliband, Labour's shadow business secretary, said workplace risk assessments should be published by employers before staff are allowed back to work.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said in response: "There is work that is ongoing in terms of the consultation, obviously I don't want to preempt that, but he makes some very important points and of course he is always welcome to write to me and I will look at what he says very carefully."

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