Employees could have to return to work with physical shields to separate them from colleagues, personal protective equipment (PPE) and limits on time spent close to each other, according to Ben Wallace, the defence secretary.
In a round of broadcast interviews, Wallace said there was a range of measures that could be used in workplaces where maintaining a two-metre distance between colleagues is not possible.
Boris Johnson is preparing to set out on Sunday how restrictions can be eased but before that, business groups and trade unions have been sent draft guidelines for how to protect people if physical distancing rules cannot be adhered to.
Wallace told the BBC that supermarket shoppers are not two metres from those working at the tills but are separated by physical shields. “Potentially, shields or PPE is a way forward,” he said.
Wallace also highlighted the “use of time” as another tool: “You could be closer than two metres but not for long,” he said.
He also confirmed the government is sourcing more face masks but stressed they should be distributed to key workers first and argued they make a marginal difference.
According to a draft plan seen by the BBC, other workplace measures including reduced hot-desking and staggered shift times.
The document urges employers to minimise the number of staff using equipment and maximise home working. However, a section marked “PPE” contains only a promise that more detail would follow.
The report comes after the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, suggested one-way systems for commuters could be put in place to avoid overwhelming the transport system. Shapps also floated the idea of staggered work times to avoid crushes during the morning peak and suggested the government was considering measures to encourage workers to take active transport such as cycling or walking to work.
Trains, buses and transport interchanges could also be equipped with hand-sanitiser, as hand-washing remained more important than wearing face masks, he suggested.
Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the issue of whether employers would be held liable even if they fulfilled their obligations was one of the “key questions we’ve asked” after the draft plans surfaced.
Marshall told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We need as much specificity as possible so businesses can ensure they’ve taken all the steps they can in order to protect their people.
“And as much as possible we want to see consistency across the UK, it would be very confusing and costly for businesses if we saw different nations going in very different directions. They (bosses) will want to know that they’re not going to be held liable to horrible things that may unfortunately happen if they’ve done everything in their power to keep their people safe.
“Whereas by contrast, you’d want to see those employers who didn’t take adequate steps face the consequences of that so the question of legal liability is extremely important.”
Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said the public “deserve to be levelled with” over a detailed plan for easing lockdown measures.
She told BBC Breakfast: “Government need to put in a range of measures – whether that is mass community testing, contact tracing, and also those things like potentially the face coverings.”
She said: “But also I think the public who have overwhelmingly stuck by these very tough lockdown rules over the last few weeks deserve to be levelled with and also want some hope for the future, so that’s why we’re urging the government to give much more detail, and face masks are one part of that.”
On Monday, Johnson will tell an international conference the coronavirus vaccine is “the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes”. He will urge countries to pull together and share their expertise to beat the virus.
The prime minister is co-hosting the virtual coronavirus global response international pledging conference. As well as the UK, eight other countries and organisations are also co-hosting the forum on Monday, which aims to bring in more than $8bn (£6.4bn) in funding to support the global response.
Johnson is expected to say: “To win this battle, we must work together to build an impregnable shield around all our people and that can only be achieved by developing and mass producing a vaccine.”
On Sunday night, the US president, Donald Trump, said he expected a vaccine to be developed before the end of the year, though experts worldwide said it may take 12-18 months.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and director of the Wellcome Trust, told the Today programme that finding a vaccine should not be the sole focus, as treatment was also important.
He said people had thought a vaccine would be available for HIV decades ago but ultimately none had been developed and treatment has proved more effective.
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