Businesses and unions react to UK ‘lockdown’

A quiet train station in Bracknell, Berkshire, during rush hour, after the prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown.
Image: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

A nationwide “lockdown” for everybody apart from key workers, announced by Boris Johnson last night, means that many employees will be working from home or unable to work at all from today.

Speaking from Downing Street on Monday evening, the prime minister said the UK faced a “national emergency” and that people needed to stay at home to protect the NHS, save lives and tackle “the biggest threat this country has faced for decades”.

New guidance states that people are only allowed to leave their house for four reasons, while complying with “social distancing” measures, such as remaining 2 metres away from other individuals. The four reasons are: shopping for basic necessities such as food and medicine; one form of exercise per day; any medical need or to care for a vulnerable person, such as a child; and travelling to and from work (for key workers).

Businesses that will not need to close include supermarkets, pharmacies, food outlets offering only take away food, petrol stations, post offices and banks.

Business bodies and unions have called for the government to bring forward its support mechanisms for employers and workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s Neil Carberry said the measures reinforced the need for businesses and workers to access support as quickly as possible. “With the economy and jobs market in lockdown, all employers can do is stand by their staff as far as possible and reap the benefits during the post-crisis comeback,” he said.

“On a practical note, this latest development makes it an absolute pre-requisite to enable online Right to Work checks as a pragmatic alternative to face to face checks. Right to Work checks currently apply to all workers subject to immigration law. We expect government to make this change in light of the lockdown measures.”

Paddy Lillis, general secretary at shopworkers’ union Usdaw, said: “We now have clear instructions and we urge the public to listen and act accordingly.

“Our members in supermarkets have had a torrid time over the last few days due to panic buying. Tonight the government has made it absolutely clear that people can only leave home to buy essential items. We hope that brings to an end the misery that shopworkers have endured as this crisis unfolded.

Lillis added that the union was aware of organisations that were “laying staff off and asking them to go without pay until the government’s Coronavirus Job Protection Scheme commences”, potentially at the end of April.

“Low-paid workers cannot wait this long without pay and we urge the government to act urgently to protect the workforce and for employers to act sympathetically,” he said.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, paid tribute to the retailers that “responded quickly and positively to evolving government guidance” and had already closed shops temporarily to protect the health of their employees and customers.

With the economy and jobs market in lockdown, all employers can do is stand by their staff as far as possible and reap the benefits during the post-crisis comeback,” – Neil Carberry, Recruitment and Employment Confederation

“Others have continued to provide essential products and services to their customers, both from physical stores and online. Any retailers that remain open will be following the very latest government public health guidance to ensure they do everything they can to ensure the safety of customers and staff,” she said.

Retailer Sports Direct received strong criticism when shortly after the announcement it said its stores would remain open as it is “uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible”. It has since backtracked on this statement and said its shops will remain closed until the government tells it otherwise.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said he could not see any justification for Sports Direct to remain open: “The key thing we need to do is make sure people wherever possible stay at home. Yes it’s important people exercise but that should be done once a day and it’s a basic thing.

“People can walk, run or cycle, they should, but there is no reason for a store like Sports Direct to remain open,” said Gove.

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