At a public library in London, staff members are filled with nerves about “freedom day” on 19 July. Billed as the big unlocking and an end to social distancing rules and mandatory face coverings in England, they fear for their safety as Covid cases grow daily.
“I will still be wearing a mask and so will lots of colleagues. We will still be washing and sanitising our hands and trying to keep a distance, but it is hard as a lot of people just walk straight up to you,” said Alan Wylie, a 55-year-old librarian.
While many business owners are glad to have fewer restrictions on numbers, they and thousands of frontline workers are worried about the backdrop of soaring infections, which exceeded 50,000 daily UK cases on Friday.
Andrew Goodacre, the chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), said there were mixed feelings and anxiety. “There is concern some staff may say Covid-19 is a risk and their employer is not doing enough to protect them.”
Unlike in previous instances of lockdown measures being lifted, Goodacre said that the loosening of rules was coming at a time of rising cases. Bira advised that businesses should, by all means, change their messaging to “politely request shoppers wear face coverings” but said they “cannot insist on it” due to the risk of discriminating against people with disabilities.
Goodacre said more specific guidance for smaller shops would be helpful, and that guidelines at the moment did not reflect the fact that cases were high.
Gregor Woods, a partner at the international law firm CMS, said employers’ legal duty had not changed and that they still had to protect their staff and do risk assessments. He added that it would be “challenging” but they have a “duty of care”.
Wylie, the librarian, is classed as clinically extremely vulnerable due to his medical history and said a lot of staff were in a similar position. He is double vaccinated but still worries.
He said that the protection for staff was dependent on which council they worked for and how seriously they took health and safety, as well as how strong the union branch was. “Anyone can walk into a public library and that is part of the uniqueness of them, but it means they can also become a hub for community transmission,” he said.
In Petersfield, Hampshire, Shirley Leader, who runs a small clothing boutique called Velvet and Rose, said she also had staff who were vulnerable. “Some are worried about their personal safety, some are young and have not had their two jabs, and some have had health scares so they will be wearing masks.”
Another big concern for her is the possibility of staff members being contacted by test and trace, prompting the shop to close its doors. “It would be good if the government offered more advice to small shops specifically,” she said. “For example, it talks about restaurants and certain venues where there may be poorer ventilation. But should we wear masks in small shops? If you have a crowd in there, should we be wary? They need to be clear on the guidance rather than keeping it general.”