By Charlotte Jones, ITC CEO
On Sunday Boris Johnson’s address to the nation threw up new confusion, uncertainty and a lot of fear by ‘encouraging’ people to return to work (it seemed with 12 hours’ notice – later amended to 3 days) if they couldn’t work from home. The onus was put onto employers to create a safe socially-distanced working environment at very short notice and on employees to ‘use their common sense’ to decide whether they could safely return to work or not. The ‘Stay at Home’ message has been inexplicably amended to the new (and virtually meaningless) ‘Stay Alert’ slogan removing the simple clarity of the lockdown and replacing it with a dangerous fudge – ‘Is it Safe?’
Managers and Boards have responsibility for staff safety and well-being. That means the physical workplace and also the mental health and safety of employees working from home. Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides employees with the ‘right not to suffer detriment or be dismissed for refusing to work in circumstances where they believe they would be in serious and imminent danger. It provides employees with the right to withdraw from and refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe’. Over the past two months the Corona Virus has proved itself to be a major life and death issue and there are still so many unknowns.
Whilst we are all desperate to get back to some level of ‘normal’ life the rationale for the partial lifting of restrictions is far from clear and employers and employees have a near impossible task in reasonably assessing the risks of returning to work. The main problem for most will be out of their immediate control anyway because greatest risk would appear to come from using the public transport system.
At ITC we have taken the decision to continue to work from home because we are fortunate to be able to be almost entirely effective from our homes and we don’t want to contribute to the chaos on the public transport system.
Many ITC members are exploring (theoretically) how they can safely create socially-distanced theatre but we don’t have any workable, practical solutions yet. We need to proceed with extreme caution. People in the UK are still dying in huge numbers. The lockdown has deprived millions of their livelihoods. It would be a double tragedy to precipitate ourselves into a second wave of infections by taking unnecessary risks at this point.
I feel very confident in the ethical instincts of ITC members who have shown themselves to be good at putting people first and caring for their staff. This is an important time, however to work cooperatively with our colleagues in the unions and ensure the safety and well-being of the people who work in this sector and the workforce as a whole.
If you need help thinking through these responsibilities and taking difficult decisions you can phone us at ITC for help and support. Our colleagues at Equity and Bectu are working hard for the sector too. This is an important time to encourage membership of a Trade Union and strengthen the voice and power of working people.
It is helpful that the Chancellor has announced an extension of the furlough scheme. The theatre sector is going to be one of the last to be able to return to safe working. Furloughed workers can still participate in training and professional development and receive communication to assist their well-being, so you can continue to forward them ITC information and newsletters and encourage them to participate in our free members meetings, webinars and training.
Use us to help you support your staff through these challenging times.