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UK strategy for returning to work

11 May 2020

By Simon Gentry, Managing Partner, Newgate Public Affairs

The government presented its strategy for returning the country to work this afternoon. Released shortly before the Prime Minister delivered his Statement to the House of Commons, the 50-page documents sets out the government’s plan and it’s reasoning.  The full document can be found here

The document sets out the government’s strategy which, in essence, is allowing a little more freedom every few days and then monitoring for a rise – or not - in transmission. 

The government believes there are eight key challenges: 

  1. This is not a short-term crisis.  It is likely that COVID-19 will circulate in the human population long-term, possibly causing periodic epidemics.
  2. In the near term, we cannot afford to make drastic changes. To successfully keep R below 1, we have little room for manoeuvre.  
  3. There is no easy or quick solution.  Only the development of a vaccine or effective drugs can reliably control this epidemic and reduce mortality without some form of social distancing or contact tracing in place.  
  4. The country must get the number of new cases down. Holding R below 1 will reduce the number of new cases down to a level that allows for the effective tracing of new cases 
  5. The world’s scientific understanding of the virus is still developing rapidly. We are still learning about who is at greatest personal risk and how the virus is spread. 
  6. The virus’ spread is difficult to detect. Some people carry the disease asymptomatically, which may mean that they can spread the virus without knowing that they are infectious. 
  7. The Government must prepare for the challenges that the winter flu season will bring.  
  8. The plan depends on continued widespread compliance. So far people have adhered to the measures well, to avoid R tipping above 1 very high continued levels of compliance are essential. 

The government’s aims are to: Return life to as close as normal as possible, for as many people as possible, as fast and fairly as possible, in a way that avoids a new epidemic, minimises lives lost and maximises health, economic and social outcomes. 

As we exit phase one, the government foresees two further phases: 

Phase two: smarter controls  

Throughout this phase, people will need to minimise the spread of the disease through continuing good hygiene practices: hand washing, social distancing and regular disinfecting of surfaces touched by others. These will be in place for some time.  

The number of social contacts people make each day must continue to be limited, the exposure of vulnerable groups must continue to be reduced from normal levels, and symptomatic and diagnosed individuals will still need to isolate.  

Over time, social contact will be made less infectious by: 

  • Making such contact safer (including by redesigning public and work spaces, and those with symptoms self-isolating) to reduce the chance of infection per contact; 
  • Reducing infected people's social contact by using testing, tracing and monitoring of the infection to better focus restrictions according to risk; and  
  • Stopping hotspots developing by detecting infection outbreaks at a more localised level and rapidly intervening with targeted measures. 

Phase three: reliable treatment  

Humanity has proved highly effective at finding medical countermeasures to infectious diseases and is likely to do so for COVID-19; but this may take time. 

Return to work 

Step One 

For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible. All those who work are contributing taxes that help pay for the healthcare provision on which the UK relies. People who are able to work at home make it possible for people who have to attend workplaces in person to do so while minimising the risk of overcrowding on transport and in public places. 

All workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open. Sectors of the economy that are allowed to be open should be open, for example food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories. The only exceptions to this are those workplaces such as hospitality and nonessential retail which during this first step the Government is requiring to remain closed. 

As soon as practicable, workplaces should follow the new “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines, which will be published later this week. These will ensure the risk of infection is as low as possible, while allowing as many people as possible to resume their livelihoods.  

On travel they say everybody (including critical workers) should continue to avoid public transport wherever possible. If they can, people should instead choose to cycle, walk or drive. Social distancing guidance on public transport must be followed rigorously. 

On face masks they say homemade cloth face-coverings can help reduce the risk of inadvertent transmission in some circumstances, and that they do not protect the wearer, but may stop them infection others. Surgical masks or respirators used as part of personal protective equipment by healthcare and other workers must continue to be reserved for those who need it. 

Step Two 

A phased return for early years settings and schools from 1 June. The Government expects Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children to be back in school in smaller sizes, from this point. 

Opening non-essential shops when and where it is safe to do so, and subject to those retailers being able to follow the new COVID-19 Secure guidelines. 

They also expect to allow cultural and sporting events to take place behind closed-doors for broadcast; 

And re-opening more local public transport in urban areas 

Step Three 

The ambition at this step is to open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons), hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas). They should also meet the COVID-19 Secure guidelines. 

Finally, the government also produced a document with Frequently Asked Questions which you may find useful. It can be found here