Unions have called on employers to do everything they can to ensure workers and the public are protected as hospitality venues prepare to open their doors again on Monday amid rising concerns about the spread of a new Indian variant of Covid-19.
Thousands of staff are set to return to work in pubs, bars and restaurants across England this week under the latest easing of restrictions, which allow indoor dining and drinking to resume.
The TUC cautioned that high vaccination rates are “no excuse” for slacking on enforcing Covid safety measures for staff and customers, while Labour accused the government of neglecting workplace protections throughout the pandemic.
Unite said it has found that some hospitality staff are fearful that employers will not properly implement social distancing when welcoming the expected flood of customers next week.
Dave Turnbull, Unite national officer with responsibility for hospitality, urged people not to be complacent when returning to indoor venues for the first time in months.
“Our members are keen to start back serving customers inside restaurants, pubs and fast food outlets from Monday after a traumatic 15 months that has wreaked havoc for the sector,” he said.
“However, there is no room for complacency from the public as there seems to be a widespread perception that the crisis is now over – with the alarming news about the spread of the Indian variant, this is far from true.
“Our message to customers is simple: have a great time, but please respect your waiting staff, bartenders and counter-service workers.”
He highlighted the fact that many people working in pubs, bars and restaurants are young and may not yet have had even a first dose of the Covid vaccine.
“Our members are concerned about the possible lack of social distancing between colleagues and customers, as well as the lack of sick pay if forced to self-isolate,” Mr Turnbull added.
The call came as the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned that the Indian variant could be 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant, which spread rapidly in the UK at the end of last year.
Sage said vaccines may offer less protection against infection with the Indian variant, meaning those people who have been vaccinated but infected may spread it to those not yet protected.
"At this point in the vaccine roll-out, there are still too few adults vaccinated to prevent a significant resurgence that ultimately could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS," the panel wrote in a report published after Friday’s Downing Street press conference.
The prime minister told the nation that the Indian variant could cause “serious disruption” to plans to ease restrictions and “could make it more difficult” to end them in June.
Mr Johnson announced that over-50s will be given their second vaccination after eight weeks instead of 12 due to concerns about the Indian variant, which is currently concentrated in local areas including Blackburn, Bolton and Bedford.
But there was no mention of younger workers who will be returning to work on Monday.
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, said businesses must by supported to reopen safely.
“Everyone has the right to return to a Covid-secure workplace, but the Conservatives have neglected workplace protections throughout the pandemic.
“Covid must be classified as a serious workplace risk and inspectors given the powers they need to keep everyone safe.”
Figures from the TUC published this week show that fewer than 1 in 200 hospitality venues had a safety inspection between March 2020 and April 2021.
The union body said that the lack of safety inspections during the pandemic is dangerous, and pointed out that not a single employer has been prosecuted and fined for putting workers or the public at risk of contracting Covid-19.
“Covid-secure workplaces are vital to beating this virus once and for all,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.
“But if employers slack on workplace safety, coronavirus cases could spiral out of control again.
“Good ventilation for indoor workers in hospitality is key. Doors and windows should be open and any suitable outside spaces used.
“We still need more action from the government to stop people being plunged into hardship for following self-isolation rules. Sick pay should be boosted to at least the value of the real living wage, so that every working person can afford to self-isolate.”
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, accused the prime minister of a “reckless failure to protect our borders” in allowing the Indian variant to spread in the UK.
“Only a few weeks ago we urged Matt Hancock to designate this a variant of concern and respond with speed and resolve.
“As expert public health officials on the ground are saying, we now need ‘surge vaccinations’ in areas of prevalence, enhanced contact tracing, and – crucially – to fix sick pay and isolation support. Having come so far we don’t want to be set back now.”