Coronavirus: Boris Johnson is easing a lockdown that didn’t exist for millions of Britons | Caroline Molloy | Opinion

After Boris Johnson’s “vague” and “confusing” address to the nation on Sunday evening, stressing that “anyone who can’t work from home” should be “actively encouraged to go to work”, the nation appeared divided between those who felt it would make little difference and those who felt Johnson was sending blue-collar workers to their deaths. The truth is somewhere in-between.

Blue-collar workers – and low-paid white-collar workers – were already in a bad position. And Johnson’s speech, as well as the shambolic interviews and unaccountable briefings that have accompanied it in lieu of timely detail, have made it worse.

Men in low-paid occupations like elementary construction workers, on assembly lines, and working as security guards, cleaners and bus drivers, are dying at far higher rates than their managers and professional men, new figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed on Monday – though exactly how much this is due to occupational exposure cannot be fully explained at this stage, the ONS cautioned.

But the figures are, perhaps, grimly unsurprising. Even before the lockdown started to fray, only half of workers were working from home, and one in four were still travelling to work. The rules for the first phase of lockdown were communicated as poorly as the new ones. There was a widespread impression, given by some vague and rather unscrutinised talk by government ministers, that only “key workers” were allowed, or required, to go to work. And that every part of the economy, bar the “essential” parts of it, had been “closed down”. But neither of these things were true.

There was no law laying out a different set of rights and requirements for key workers, and the only definition was in a hastily produced, non-statutory list aimed at parents, which was so broad it included 10 million workers. And – as a government spokesperson confirmed to me – there was “no guidance that implies only essential work can continue”. Indeed, the guidance said it was important for business to carry on, only shops and leisure facilities were closed. All other businesses, from offices to construction sites to factories, were allowed to continue to operate, and – with decisions about furloughing also left entirely at employers’ discretion – many did.

Now the government messaging is catching up with the current legal reality. And those of us lucky enough to still be able to work from home are now realising how ugly that looks.

Take the call centre workers reported on by openDemocracy, travelling by public transport to workplaces with crowding, air conditioning and even hot-desking, carrying out entirely non-essential work such as telesales and debt-chasing, or filling in spreadsheets because the bosses “didn’t want to pay them for doing nothing”.

One worker, who sold investment products, said he “didn’t want to die for £9.30 an hour”. The majority of them felt terrified and furious they were being made to go in even though they could in theory do their job from home. There had already been outbreaks of symptoms among call-centre staff – and, tragically, deaths – according to the union representing them.

Some said they had even had to move out of home, so worried were they of catching the virus and passing it on to vulnerable members of their household. Others were in a vulnerable group themselves – but had no new protections or rights to stay home. There are no new statutory rights to enforce distancing and PPE at work in England – though there are in Wales and Scotland.

And it’s now clear that that these gaps in the protection for workers continue into stage two of the Covid-19 response, and will affect ever more workers. The revised guidance for employers, released on Monday night, is just that – guidance rather than legally binding requirements, even as penalties on individual citizens who break the rules in their daily lives are increased. The guidance is also littered with references to enforcing social distancing “wherever possible”, and to “minimise”, “mitigate” and “reduce” rather than “eliminate” risks – though it does advise employers to work with unions, and has been greeted as a “step in the right direction” by the TUC. But, shockingly, the guidance contains no clear legal duty to permit vulnerable workers and those with vulnerable household members to stay home or even stay distanced at work, merely exhortations to “consider”, “assess” and “pay particular attention to” such workers’ needs. Much, including publication of risk assessments by larger employers, is “expected”, but not mandated.

It’s also clear from Monday’s cabinet office paper, Our Plan to Rebuild, that the government will start to “wind down economic support schemes while people are eased back to work”, ramping up the financial and moral pressure on workers to resume their jobs.

The lack of new enforceable rights workers with childcare needs, those who rely on public transport, those who have vulnerable household members and don’t happen to have a spare room to isolate in, all give an impression of a government run by men with no idea what home life is like for the majority of people.

Or work life, for that matter. The idea that we “choose” whether we go back to work, and that (as Johnson suggested in parliament on Monday) everything can be sorted out by a friendly conversation with one’s employer, ignores the reality of precarious work for many people, who feel invisible to the public and disposable to their bosses. For whom furlough may have already been granted and then snatched away – or refused all along.

Some people may have a union to give them confidence to enforce their rights under existing legislation, including Section 44 of the Health and Safety at Work Act (which may give the right to leave if an employee reasonably believes they or their family are in imminent danger) or equalities legislation (which may protect employees whose bosses are being totally unsympathetic about childcare issues). But after another decade of tough anti-union legislation, fragmented workplaces and casual employment relations, many will not know about, or have access to, the sufficient support.

A government spokesperson told me there would be “a number of legal cases” after this is over, about whether bosses were right to make people go into work or not. But that will be too late for some.

Caroline Molloy is a journalist and editor of openDemocracy UK

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