UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab clarified that new workplace guidance would not come into force until Wednesday after the government was accused of causing confusion over the start date for lockdown-easing measures.
Downing Street told reporters on Sunday that people who could not work from home — such as factory or construction personnel — should return to the workplace from Monday as part of a broader effort to get the economy moving again.
The briefing prompted a torrent of concern from union leaders that employers would have to reopen workplaces before the publication of a 50-page document later on Monday setting out the new rules and further guidance for specific sectors on Tuesday.
In an attempt to douse the row, Mr Raab announced on Monday morning that the new workplace guidance would not come into effect until Wednesday after all.
“If you can work from home you should continue to do so,” Mr Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “But there are vital sectors of the economy like manufacturing, construction, where people can’t do their job from home, so we are saying to them they should now, from Wednesday, go back to work.”
He added that such workers would have to abide by various new restrictions — to enable “Covid-secure working”.
But opponents of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration rounded on ministers for sending mixed messages.
Ed Miliband, shadow business secretary, said: “Workers and employers deserve better than shambolic policymaking on the hoof when the stakes are so high.”
Neil Coyle, a Labour MP, described the government’s handling of the situation as “abysmal mismanagement”.
Len McCluskey, leader of Unite the Union, said the government should have published the guidance before saying anything about the easing of the lockdown.
“The prime minister’s response last night was confusing and almost disbelieving . . . I’m wondering why we didn’t see the 50-page documents and guidelines that are about to come out before there was any indication about going back to work,” he said. “Many people will be dumbfounded this morning.”
Mr Johnson used a televised speech on Sunday to set out a three-stage plan to get Britain back to work, abandoning his “stay at home” message and holding out the prospect that schools and parts of the economy could start to reopen before the summer.
Government officials said people could drive to national parks or the beach, provided they maintained a 2-metre distance. Meeting a friend on a park bench with social distancing would be allowed.
Mr Johnson’s shift to a new “stay alert” slogan was strongly criticised by leaders in Scotland and Wales, who complained they had not been consulted. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said she did not know what the slogan meant.
Mr Raab said on Monday morning that British citizens would not be able to visit a pub or restaurant or get a haircut until after July 4.
The foreign secretary said early July would be the “earliest” that sectors such as hospitality and hairdressers would be reviewed: “Obviously the proximity in those two sectors . . . is something where we don’t think we’re ready yet, given where we are with the virus,” he told Sky News.
Mr Raab added that it was impossible to remain in the lockdown indefinitely and described the prime minister’s announcement as a “road map” out. He said that as people returned to work or spent more time outside it was vital that they stayed “alert” — in line with the government’s revised advice.
“It’s important for us as a country to avoid a situation where . . . we allow the virus a second spike,” he said.
The foreign secretary further confused matters when he said individuals would be able to meet both of their parents at the same time. That contradicted Sunday’s advice that people should only meet one other individual under social distancing rules.