Serious concerns have been raised about the government’s plans ‘to pause’ its shielding policy on 1 August and the challenges that will then face thousands of  ‘extremely vulnerable’ people returning to the workplace.

Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest union, said that the world of work had dramatically changed since the lockdown was introduced in March and questioned if ministers had thought through all the implications of ‘pausing’, as Covid-19 was still prevalent across the UK.

Unite pinpointed key issues such as mental health as people were fearful of returning to a work environment over which they had no control; concerns about disciplinary procedures for those too worried to return to work; and lack of adequate policies for a structured return with the necessary induction programmes.

Unite is also concerned that many employers will not have organised vital professional health assessments, necessary to identify and implement extra measures needed to protect this extremely vulnerable group.

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “The world of work has fundamentally changed since March and as we ease back into the workplace, we need to pay special attention to the concerns of those who have been ‘shielding’ these last five months.

“There is an arbitrary ring to the 1 August date and we question whether ministers have thought through all the implications as thousands of ‘shielding’ workers gingerly return to their place of employment.

“The pandemic has shown that trade unions are the last line of defence when it comes to protecting employment rights and maintaining health & safety standards.

“There has been insufficient time allowed by this announcement for many individuals to mentally adjust to the proposed physical return to work, often on possibly crowded public transport; let alone sorting out with their employer risks associated with travel and workplace assessment.

“In union organised workplaces, Unite representatives will be on hand to manage the expected spike in members experiencing extreme workplace anxiety – from mental health issues to maintaining the two metre social distancing rule for this group, rather than the more relaxed ‘one metre plus’ favoured by the prime minister.

“Yet, as we have seen with the outbreak of pandemic clusters, unscrupulous employers have brushed aside safety measures. This cliff edge date takes no account of bad bosses and risks plunging extremely vulnerable people into the Hobson’s choice of no income or being put at risk by what is a deadly virus that has already claimed more than 45,000 lives in the UK.”

Unite is also deeply concerned about the impact on those who may not be in employment and remain at home. They face losing the support from the national shielding service which provided free food parcels, medicine deliveries and care.

Gail Cartmail added: “As the government was too slow to react at the onset of coronavirus, it now appears it could be moving too fast in pausing the ‘shielding’ barrier and removing much valued support for this vulnerable group. It should not be forgotten that Covid-19 is still prevalent throughout the UK.

 “We shall be watching the situation very closely in the nation’s workplaces to see how this rolls out during August and will intervene with management where we feel improvements could be made for the safety and welfare of all employees.”


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Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.