Coronavirus: Minister says return to work only applies from Wednesday

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Traffic in London the morning after Boris Johnson said people who cannot work from home should be 'actively encouraged' to return to their jobs. (PA)

Millions of people who cannot work from home should only return to workplaces on Wednesday, according to a government minister.

The comments by foreign secretary Dominic Raab on Monday sparked disbelief as Boris Johnson had not included a date in his speech on Sunday night. Johnson had said only that he hoped people would act on the eased lockdown restrictions “this week.”

The prime minister’s message was widely assumed to apply from Monday, as reportedly briefed to UK political journalists by Downing Street officials.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband dubbed the government’s messaging “shambolic,” with anger it has left many workers uncertain over whether they must leave their homes.

Miliband tweeted: “Wednesday was only mentioned in relation to other changes. Words matter. Clarity is essential.”

READ MORE: Call for swift return to work ‘recipe for chaos’ without new safety guidance

Construction and manufacturing workers are among those the government is encouraging to return to work, though they had not previously been blocked from doing so.

There were reports on Monday that some trains and roads were busier than usual. The BBC’s transport correspondent Tom Edwards tweeted that commuters on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network said it was “noticeably busier’ than last week, with more construction and office workers.

The UK government’s call for a swift return to work at short notice had already been dubbed a “recipe for chaos” before Raab’s clarification.

Union, business and opposition leaders all demanded more guidance on safety in workplaces, while critics also warned over safety and severely limited capacity on public transport for commuters.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson’s lockdown easing speech explained

A leading London business trade body had already issued a “strong and unequivocal” appeal to firms not to change their plans on Monday. “We have not been given sufficient information on how to get your employees safely to work, not how to keep them safe while they are there.”

He said he hoped Johnson’s planned statement in parliament and guidance documents on Monday afternoon would help firms to adequately prepare.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the government should be introducing “tough new rules” on safety alongside a return to work.

She said the current messaging would cause many workers “confusion and anxiety,” adding: “The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe.”

It comes as expectations grow that the UK government’s furlough scheme could be extended, but with wage subsidies slashed from 80% to 60% of ordinary pay.

The Telegraph reports UK chancellor Rishi Sunak could extend the scheme, currently paying the wages of more than six million workers, to September. Firms are concerned the support could be slashed before recovery is strong enough for firms to start paying full wages themselves, risking lay-offs.

READ MORE: Stocks on ‘firm footing’ as lockdown exit roadmap set out