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Coronavirus: Have we really gone back to work?

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As lockdown laws ease, Pimlico Plumbers boss, Charlie Mullins questions whether it really is business as usual for the nation’s SMEs…

This is the week the nation has gone back to work. Well, sort of.

In the days following the slightly mixed messages from Boris Johnson’s bank holiday weekend address, the Government has attempted to make it clearer about who can work, when and where.

It has published multiple documents containing guidance for firms on how they can get their workers back into their premises safely.

Much of the emphasis of the announcement was intended to restart activity in the manufacturing and construction sectors, but it has led to the introduction of rules for all employers to help spark the economy back to life.

Of course, a very large number of businesses have their staff working remotely and under the ‘stay alert’ guidance a lot of people will remain at their kitchen tables for a few more weeks to come.

Alongside these firms, hopefully we will see a glut of SMEs, providing services that can’t be delivered from home, springing back to life.

Safety is paramount in any business, none more so during this medical emergency and businesses have to do everything they can to prepare their workplaces for their returning staff.

Some firms that have been operating throughout the pandemic from their premises are ahead of the curb. At Pimlico we quickly instigated a range of hygiene and social distancing measures for those staff working at our HQ and will tweak them in line with the new government advice as we increase the number of people in our buildings at the appropriate time.

Others, though, will be nowhere near ready. There will be lots of panicking business owners who heard the Prime Minister say on Sunday they can go back the following day or even yesterday and had no plans in place.

That amount of notice from Boris was not helpful anyway, particularly for those who have people on furlough and suddenly were being told to bring them back to reopen with 12 hours’ notice.

It also meant that they wouldn’t have been able to put the safety measures in place in time. Naturally, this has opened the doors for the unions to throw their two-pennies-worth into the debate.

The GMB Union claims the new rules will take at least a fortnight to work through and has told its 600,000 members they should withdraw their labour if they feel unsafe.

Trust the unions to hang the threat of strikes over the head of employers. While we might feel we are in the economic equivalent of the early 1970s, or worse, there is no need for outdated union action.

While the unions might want to paint us as sweat shop operators or Victorian mill owners, modern employers actually know that the health and wellbeing of their workforce is the priority. In these unprecedented times a whole new approach is being taken to how we live our lives and that includes where we work.

The guidance from the Government is pretty straightforward and contains quite a bit of common sense.

On one particular point the unions might be right, it’ll take a couple of weeks for larger SMEs to get everything sorted, but for others it will take less. That said, even in two weeks it may be too early for some office-based businesses to reopen completely anyway so they can be using this time to get everything in order.

It is frustrating though that the noises off from the unions play into the age-old ‘them and us’ story between employers and their workforces.

There has been a lot written in the last couple of days since the chancellor extended the furlough scheme that workers are happy to sit at home on less wages.

I haven’t seen that myself and some research carried out by law firm DWF discovered that half of British workers are ready to go back to work post-lockdown with a further 25% saying they may be ready to return.

The phrase ‘we are all in this together’ has been banded around a lot in recent weeks, but in this case, it is definitely true.

Many workers have continued the hard graft from home to support their employers and a large number on furlough will be keen to get back to the coal face, because I still believe we are hard-working nation.

Restarting or increasing business activity is the next big challenge in overcoming the fallout of the pandemic. I am confident that entrepreneurs and take it in their stride and make sure that their businesses will be safe for their employees and customers.

Stay safe and stay in business.

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