Opinions and Legal Insights

The PM’s speech, a confused message with a hidden sting in the tail

Across England*, many will be scratching their heads and wondering whether they are supposed to be going to work today, or not. Such is the level of uncertainty that has followed the Prime Minister’s broadcast yesterday. So what did he actually say about work. His opening words do not really change anything for some–
“We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must..”
That is all he said about those who are working from home. No change. This prompted the CEO of one major solicitors’ firm to email the entire workforce to say –
“Following on from Boris not really saying very much.. nothing changes for us so please don’t worry about whether tomorrow is any different from last week”

It is encouraging to see a business leader taking prompt action to ease the anxiety caused by the speech.

The PM went on –

“We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those involved in construction or manufacturing should be actively encouraged to go to work.”

I must confess to reading that sentence repeatedly, but was none the wiser. Those who, for the last 8 weeks, have not been able to work from home, fall into one of two groups. They have either been going to work or they have been furloughed.  The PM was clearly not speaking to the group who have been working. This is all about furlough. The message is directed at those who have been furloughed and the message is that you should now go back to work. 

I have had a message this morning from a friend whose partner, a building surveyor  has been instructed back to work today and will be required to go into the houses of complete strangers.

It does seem that the real message here sits behind the words. Furlough has been popular and has probably saved many lives.  But it is also expensive. Have you noticed how the rhetoric around furlough has changed? At first, it was heralded as a way of protecting workers and controlling the coronavirus outbreak. More recently the rhetoric has been about the nation sitting at home watching Netflix. Workers themselves have no control over this. They did not furlough themselves. They cannot unfurlough themselves. 

This seems to be preparing the ground for a gradual ending of the scheme and pressurising employers and workers back to work regardless of safety concerns.

There is no clarity at all for workers who are instructed to return but have genuine safety concerns.

The PM was never enthusiastic about lockdown measures. Right at the start, he talked about “taking it on the chin” and allowing the disease to move through the population. He said that things like closing schools and stopping large gathering don’t work as well as people think. It was the Imperial College report that predicted catastrophic fatalities that changed this. Despite continuing words of caution, the message now seems to be to get back to normal as soon as possible. 

Removal of the words ‘Stay at Home’, will be interpreted by many as a call to get out especially when replaced by the meaningless ‘stay alert’. Many have pointed out the subliminal message behind the new warning signs. The old one was red – Stop. The new one is green – Go. There is nothing wrong with restarting the economy when the time is right. Are we there yet? 

We need a clear response from the Opposition, from unions and from businesses to say lives must come before the economy.
* Other UK countries are maintaining the stay at home message