Up to 2 million extremely vulnerable people shielding in England must not be forced to return to their workplaces, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said.
It would be “heartless and reckless” for bosses to demand the immediate return of shielding workers on 1 August, when the government will no longer advise them to stay at home and will no longer pay them statutory sick pay.
Those classed as “clinically extremely vulnerable” – with serious illness such as blood cancers and severe asthma, as well as those on immunosuppressant medication – have been ordered to shield for more than four months since 23 March.
The TUC is asking employers not to force the return of their staff and instead to continue using the government’s job retention scheme for shielding workers, which runs until October. It is also calling for this to be extended for people who are told by their doctor that they should shield for longer.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, told the Guardian: “It would be heartless and reckless for employers to demand the immediate return of shielding workers. After self-isolation for a number of months, requiring shielding workers to immediately travel to workplaces may cause anxiety and distress. The government must make clear to employers that they cannot give shielding workers unreasonable ultimatums to return to workplaces. The job retention scheme is in place until at least October, so employers must continue using it if home working is not an option. And the government should make clear that furlough will still be an option after October for shielding workers who cannot safely travel to workplaces or who may be subject to a local lockdown.”
The TUC’s demands include asking employers to publish full risk assessments for each workplace, conducted in consultation with staff unions and covering the needs of workers who are at higher risk. There should also be individual risk assessments in consultation with each shielding worker, or each worker who is a carer or a household member of someone shielding.
Prof Peter Openshaw, of Imperial College London, who sits on the government’s Sage group of Covid-19 advisers, said there was growing concern that transmission of the disease would increase in the next few weeks, just as those shielding may be returning to work.
“Many of us are concerned that we may be seeing an increase in transmission in the ensuing weeks,” he said. “We need to be alert to the possibility when people are on holiday in August that there may be increased transmission and we may need to bring in measures to protect people’s health.”
Dr Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at the University of Leeds school of medicine, said the government should provide the science behind their decision to end the shielding advice.
“What’s missing is a rationale,” he said. “They are just announcing that it’s safe for people to go back on 1 August, when there are still significant numbers of people infected every day and you’re talking about releasing 2 million or so highly, highly vulnerable individuals back out into society? In terms of the circulating amount of virus, it’s still there in appreciable numbers … We’ve become very desensitised to this. People are talking about pre-lockdown levels and, yes, it’s a comparison, but the reality is people are still dying from this.”
Fifteen charities, including Age UK and Macmillan Cancer Support, have written to Sunak raising concerns that unwinding the furlough scheme and ending shielding will put many “in an impossible position”.
They write: “If their occupation is one that they cannot carry out from home, and if it is extremely difficult to make their workplace safe for them, they may be forced to choose between putting their health on the line by returning, or staying safe by giving up their job.” The signatories say this is “desperately unfair” and call on the chancellor to take action and protect their jobs as well as supporting employers.