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Coronavirus: Confusion over who are 'key workers' and what shops can open

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
There is significant confusion over which workers should go to work and what shops are open after the UK government announced a lockdown. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Prime minister Boris Johnson gave the British public the “very simple instruction” to stay at home as he announced an unprecedented national lockdown on Monday night.

Many people also received government texts with the same message on Tuesday. But the restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus appear to be anything but simple, with widespread confusion over new rules and guidance.

Read more: UK in strict lockdown as non-essential stores shut and gatherings banned

Social media is flooded with people asking whether they should go to work, while photos are circulating of busy roads, commuter trains and construction sites. The government initially suggested only “key” or “essential” staff should go into work, but ministers are now saying much work can continue as long as staff take precautions.

Who are considered key workers?

Some of the most-Googled questions on Tuesday include “who can go to work,” with queries particularly over construction workers, gardeners and window cleaners. Search also spiked over shops, with many shoppers and staff alike unclear about which shops can open.

Meanwhile, Sports Direct and Evans Cycles had planned to remain open despite being non-essential stores. But announced a swift U-turn on Tuesday after a backlash. Owner Frasers Group highlighted a lack of clarity in government advice and noted bike shops were allowed to open.

Who can go to work during the UK lockdown?

Many workers and employers alike are still awaiting clear advice.

A video shared by Downing Street’s official Twitter account on Monday night said the public could only leave home to go to work “if you’re a key worker.” But no list of official occupations classed as “key workers” appears to have been released, and the message clashed with other government guidance.

The coronavirus advice page on the government’s main website uses different language, saying only “essential work” is permitted-but also fails to give any definition.

Meanwhile a more detailed government guidance document also published on Monday says anyone can in fact continue to work if their job cannot be done from home.

This document states one permitted reason for leaving home is “travelling to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home.” This suggests work will continue as normal for many staff, as long as they follow social distancing guidelines such as maintaining a two-metre distance.

The government's advice was that workers should only go out for 'essential' work, but it was accused of mixed messages (Gov.uk)

The mixed messages have left workers and employers facing tough choices about whether to go to work as usual on Tuesday. What counts as ‘key,’ ‘essential’ or ‘allowed work,’ who has authority to make such decisions and what workers should do if they need clarity or disagree with employers are all left unresolved.

The government is now trying to clarify its guidance, distancing itself from limiting work to “key” workers. Downing Street has deleted the tweet referring to key workers.

It later shared the same video with the wording changed – and it now says work is a legitimate reason for anyone to leave home if working from home is not possible.

Read more: Sports Direct U-turns on plans to open despite government shutdown of non-essential retailers

Communities minister Robert Jenrick also told construction workers last night they can continue to work on site, despite concerns over their safety in close proximity to colleagues. Housebuilder Taylor Wimpey has closed its building sites, but Redrow sites remain open.

Minister Michael Gove said builders should work but remain two metres apart, and tradesman such as plumbers and electricians can attend emergencies.

Calls are now growing for the shutdown to be widened or clarified to apply to all but a government-defined list of key workers. Such a move would stop employers forcing many staff to come to work.

What shops can open despite the lockdown?

The government has published a full list of the kind of shops that are now ordered to remain closed, alongside a list of exceptions.

Shops allowed to open include supermarkets and other food stores, health shops, pharmacies, petrol stations, bikes shops, home and hardware shops, launderettes and dry cleaners, garages, car rentals, pet shops, newsagents, post offices and banks.

Parks will remain open, but playgrounds and outdoor gym spaces will shut.

Retail and public premises that stay open will have to keep a two-metre distance between staff and customers, only allow shoppers to enter in small groups and organise queues.

The full list of shops and businesses that can and cannot operate is available here.

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