Covid safety guidance to firms in England criticised as ‘recipe for chaos’

Government guidelines place onus on businesses to decide which safety measures to implement

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Last modified on Wed 14 Jul 2021 14.40 EDT

Government advice on how businesses should keep customers and staff safe after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted in England on 19 July has been branded a “recipe for chaos”, as ministers confirmed that mask-wearing would not be a legal requirement.

Guidelines issued on Wednesday place the onus on shops, offices and events and hospitality venues to decide which safety measures to implement.

The guidance for businesses lays out six priorities: stringent cleaning regimes, turning away people with symptoms, providing adequate ventilation, enabling check-in via the NHS app, good training for staff, and performing risk assessments.

While the government “expects and recommends” that people wear masks in crowded areas, this will not be compulsory.

In the absence of compulsory measures, the guidance puts particular emphasis on ensuring good ventilation, including the use of carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors. It will be left up to businesses to decide whether they will require staff and customers to check in with the NHS app, practise social distancing or use face masks.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said the guidance was a “recipe for chaos and rising infections” and had been released at short notice without proper consultation with unions and employees.

“Wearing face coverings should remain a legal requirement on public transport and in shops – it is not a matter of ‘personal responsibility’, nor should it be left to individual employers to decide,” she said.

Labour tried to secure an urgent parliamentary question on the guidance after Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, said companies had “been left to scramble with confusing and contradictory advice, with ministers ducking doing the right thing and loading responsibility on to Britain’s firms”.

A senior union source said there had been “zero” consultation about the guidance on working safely, in contrast with the approach at the start of the pandemic.

“It is not the business secretary but No 10 driving all of this because of party management,” they said. “The vast majority of employers want to do the right thing but there are some who will play fast and loose with workers’ safety.”

On Wednesday, officials issued sector-by-sector guidance for a “gradual return” to the workplace for those who have been working from home, as well as particular advice for venues where lots of people gather, such as sports stadiums and pubs.

Personal contact in offices should be reduced by grouping staff into teams, using screens or barriers to separate workers, and reducing hot-desking where possible, the guidelines state.

Pubs, restaurants and nightclubs are advised to use CO2 detectors to monitor ventilation and use mechanical units or wedge doors open where possible. Models that allow users to monitor exact CO2 levels typically cost £250 or more.

For food service, the guidelines recommend the use of disposable condiment holders, contactless payment and ordering via apps, limited use of self-service and asking people not to lean on countertops.

Hotels are advised to ask any guests who have to self-isolate to strip their own beds or clean their own rooms, to avoid contact with cleaning staff.

The shopworkers’ union Usdaw criticised the government for leaving it up to shops to decide what to ask of customers. The union’s general secretary, Paddy Lillis, said the guidance “provides no assurances for staff or employers. It is a real mess. Protection for retail workers through wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing in busy public areas like shops should be backed up by the law.”

Retailers including the bookseller Waterstones and the jeweller Beaverbrooks have said they will ask staff and customers to wear masks.

Guidance for large events such as music festivals or sports fixtures places emphasis on avoiding congestion at areas such as queues and turnstiles by deploying more stewards or using methods such as staggered entry.

Organisers could ensure events are zoned, the guidance suggests, with guests allocated entrances and facilities such as bars or toilets based on their zone to avoid excessive mixing of people.

While face masks will no longer be compulsory on public transport, Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said he “expected and indeed wanted” some train, bus and rail companies to insist that commuters and travellers wear them.

The minister said he backed a decision by the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, for masks to remain compulsory on public transport in the capital. Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, said masks would be required on the Metrolink tram service.

Mayors in other English regions, including Andy Street in the West Midlands, do not have powers to make mask-wearing mandatory but have urged passengers to wear them. In West and South Yorkshire, face masks will be required in bus stations and interchanges but mayors cannot make them compulsory on buses or trains.

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