Boris Johnson says construction workers should be ‘actively encouraged’ to go to work

Boris Johnson has been warned that his instruction to the industry to get back to work will not happen overnight with most worries centring on ensuring the safety of workers.

In an address to the nation tonight, the prime minister said construction was one of those sectors that should go back to work seven weeks after he brought in the lockdown.

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He said: “We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”

He added: “And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited. So work from home if you can but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”

Johnson said staff should get to work by car or “even better by walking or bicycle”.

He said the government has been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces covid-secure.

But Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment at law firm Fieldfisher, warned: “The devil is in the detail and businesses should wait for the concrete guidance to come during the week to start planning before opening up their workplace. I very much doubt that any business [prepared to accept workers back into the workplace tomorrow] can ensure their safety.

“Business leaders’ desire to kick-start things again without proper planning may leave them vulnerable to employee claims of health and safety violations. Employers are still responsible for their workers inside and outside of the workplace, this includes travel into worksites.”

He said employers should continue to take advantage of the government’s furlough scheme, which is due to finish at the end of next month. “My advice is for businesses to be very cautious and take the time that the extended furlough scheme allows to plan the logistics, consult their employees about the changes and their obligations, have them agree and then welcome them back into the workplace.”

Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer added: “The prime minister appears to be effectively telling millions of people to go back to work without a clear plan for safety or clear guidance as to how to there without using public transport.”

This morning Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds said his advice to staff was to not to come to work if they felt uncomfortable doing so.

He added: “Don’t come to work if you have any concerns whatsoever.” Asked whether subcontractors would now feel more pressure to send staff to work, given the prime minister’s comments, he said: “I honestly believe most companies will act responsibly.” Mace, he added, is hoping to get up to 50% capacity by the end of this month with 30,000 workers on its sites.

And the chief executive of the British Property Federation, whose members manage thousands of offices, warehouses and shops, said the government needed to produce its new workplace guidance immediately. Melanie Leech said: “We urgently need the government to publish the detail in its back-to-work papers and what public health guidance will apply as more people return to their places of work.”

Contractors and housebuilders have been reopening sites for more than two weeks now but with vastly reduced workforces. As well as the amount of labour being allowed on to jobs in order to meet social distancing protocols, other headaches have included getting to site, which has proved difficult for firms working in London, and the availability of materials.