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Government must urgently rethink sending shielders back to work

Published date
Workers told to shield should not have to choose between their health and their livelihood, as shielding is set to end on 1 April.

Shielders are those identified as being at the highest risk of serious complications or death from Covid-19 due to their existing health conditions. This includes cancer patients, those with severe respiratory conditions and others undergoing immunosuppressive treatment.

Like some sick April Fool’s joke, the government has told hundreds of thousands of shielding workers to return to the workplace on 1 April .

Although the government’s guidance to work from home if you can remains in place until at least June, thousands of shielding workers have jobs which can’t be done from home, in open sectors such as public services, manufacturing and construction. And employers have been given no additional guidance to consider the specific risks of those in the shielded group.

The vast majority of shielders have not received their second vaccine dose – and one in ten have not even received their first dose. The first vaccine dose gives 52-75 per cent protection from the virus. Changing advice to all shielders, regardless of their vaccination status, is deeply irresponsible.

It is premature to ask shielders to return to workplaces when it is not yet even considered safe to open non-essential retail, which remains closed until 12 April.

The TUC believes that the government should reconsider the decision to end shielding on 1 April.

Instead, the government should:

  • Extend the shielding deadline until everyone in this group has had the chance to get both doses of the vaccine, and set a new date for the end of shielding that accords with the roadmap for reopening, based on infection rates, hospital admissions and the other metrics used to determine other key steps
  • Guarantee that no shielding worker is forced to return to a workplace outside of their home before the end of restrictions on 21 June, and ensure that furlough and individual benefits are available to support this
  • Provide advice to shielded workers based on their individual risk level and vaccination status
  • Require employers to conduct individual risk assessments that take into account shielding workers’ circumstances as they plan to return to workplaces.

Trade unions should seek to prevent unreasonable attempts to return shielders to the workplace before the end of restrictions on 21 June – regardless of existing government advice.

Union reps should seek to negotiate:

  • Workplace policies that make clear that shielding workers should not be asked to return to workplaces before they have received both doses of the vaccine
  • The use of furlough for shielding workers and those who live with people who are shielding
  • Risk assessments conducted on an individual basis to account for health conditions, which make relevant adaptions to work duties to reduce transmission risk
  • That Covid-19 safety measures remain in place regardless of workers’ vaccination status, including social distancing and ventilation control

Just as we have for the last twelve months, unions will continue to prioritise health and safety at work and fight to ensure no worker has to choose between their health and their livelihood.

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