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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Clarity Is Needed on Lifting the Lockdown

Friday, 15 May 2020

Ask anybody familiar with crisis management what the most important factor is in responding to a major challenge and their reply will probably be “Clarity”. Clarity is what allows organisations and communities to develop clear and effective responses, and guides individuals to understand what they should, and should not, be doing. On the other hand, a lack of clarity can turn what could have being a manageable problem into something more serious. I fear that, as we enter the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of clarity we’re seeing at the moment could end up being very costly indeed.

Like many of you, I have been closely following the statements from the Prime Minister and government about their plans to begin easing the current lockdown. There are some parts of the new approach that I support. Allowing unlimited outdoor exercise is a targeted and sensible easing that could improve physical and mental health with little downside if people continue to abide by the social distancing rules. I’m also pleased that, despite the rumours that it would be scaled down, the government has chosen to maintain the current level of support offered by the furloughing scheme until the end of October. While it is an expensive measure, I have no doubt that the human and economic cost from redundancies and businesses failures had it not continued would have been far higher.

However, Prime Minister has also said “Those who cannot work from home should speak to their employer about returning to work”. On this, I believe that he has got it massively, and potentially catastrophically, wrong.

First of all, it confuses much of the guidance around social distancing. We’ve been told that we can only see one person outside our household at a time while staying 2 metres apart, but by the letter of the new return to work guidelines, putting large groups of people in close proximity in an office, building site or public transport is now going to be allowed. The Prime Minister has mentioned that all workplaces will be made safe, but this is far easier said than done and we have been given little information on how he will make this happen. At present, around 4,000 people a day nationwide are still being diagnosed as positive for coronavirus. The true number is likely to be much higher since many areas, including here in Greater Manchester, have only just started to have their capacity for testing expanded. Research also suggests that the course of the virus’ spread across Britain may be up to two weeks behind London, making much of the country more vulnerable to a spike in infections if the lockdown is lifted prematurely.   

But it’s not just that reopening workplaces exposes more people to coronavirus, it’s that some are going to be more exposed than others. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the only people we’ve asked to go to work are our NHS and key workers, those whose jobs have been essential to protecting us from coronavirus and keeping the basics of society running. We’re now asking people who aren’t key workers to return to their jobs, and I wouldn’t blame them for asking why they should be put at increased risk because they don’t have the luxury of being able to work from home. There is serious evidence which shows that among men, construction workers are already twice as likely to die from coronavirus as the average member of the population. Now is not the time to be encouraging anybody to go back into the workplace unless they absolutely have to.

This lockdown has been a challenge for all of us, and the consequences will almost certainly be felt for a long time after this pandemic is defeated. But the health of our people must always come before economic calculations. If the government insists on going ahead with reopening workplaces, they must offer financial support and guidance on making them coronavirus safe, and ensure that any decisions are made with the safety of employees first and foremost on their minds. Anything less carries the risk of setting us down the road to potential disaster and a second wave of this terrible virus. 


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