Why were there mixed messages over returning to work in lockdown?

13 May 2020

The Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday evening that some lockdown restrictions could be lifted was met with some confusion over when exactly some workers would be expected to return to work after conflicting information was given by government sources. 

On Sunday, Boris Johnson said it was time to “modify” the lockdown measures, with the first step being “a change of emphasis that we hope that people will act on this week.” This included that people who cannot work from home, such as those in construction or manufacturing, should be “actively encouraged to go to work”. 

He did not give a specific day that these changes should be enforced, although later said that other changes to restrictions on outdoor activity would begin on Wednesday 13 May. 

However, a press release sent out by Downing Street to media organisations before the speech mentioned Monday specifically as the day to begin encouraging workers to return—the day after Mr Johnson’s speech. 

The press release, sent on Sunday and seen by Full Fact, said: “[Mr Johnson] will set out the first slow and gradual changes which will come into force from Wednesday including allowing people to spend time outdoors for leisure purposes, as long as they are socially distanced from others.” 

After outlining changes to rules around outdoor exercise the press release then went on to say: “[Mr Johnson] will say that from tomorrow (Monday) ‘anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction and manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.’”

Multiple media organisations reported that this change would be introduced on Monday, including The Guardian, The Independent and The Metro. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, wrote on Twitter: “Some people are being asked to go back to workplaces tomorrow. At 12 hours’ notice.”

However, on Monday morning foreign secretary and first secretary of state Dominic Raab gave multiple interviews, such as to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, insisting that people should return to work from Wednesday if they cannot work from home. 

A Downing Street spokesperson told Full Fact the press release on Sunday said “from tomorrow” in order to “allow people to get prepared for the changes that would be brought into law from Wednesday”. 

They added that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson had briefed that the changes would be in force from Wednesday, and said: “I can confirm the press release is accurate and it was always the plan for changes to be introduced on Wednesday.”

Some media organisations warned of the difficulty caused by the announcements. The Financial Times said the government “had to postpone the start date by 48 hours” on the workplace guidance on what it called a “day of confusion”, while the Evening Standard reported on Monday that the government’s message was “in confusion today as commuters packed on to the London Underground” while Mr Raab “belatedly declared they were supposed to have stayed off until Wednesday.”

This confusion was also flagged by Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, in Parliament on Monday afternoon. 

Government guidance published on Monday afternoon said “some of the changes being made to the regulations will not take effect until Wednesday 13 May - where relevant, this is flagged in this guidance.” (This line has since been removed). The section specifically about going to work does not flag that it came into force only on Wednesday. However, a separate FAQ document, also published on Monday afternoon, said “all changes will come into effect” on Wednesday (this line has also since been removed).

The new guidance says people in certain sectors who cannot work from home should return to work if possible, particularly in jobs such as construction and manufacturing, supermarkets, laboratories and research facilities, tradesmen and cleaners and those organising takeaways and deliveries at restaurants. 

The government has set out ‘Covid-Secure’ safety guidelines for workplaces.

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