When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.K. in March, Alan Secker’s company Secker & Sons (Norwich) LTD had to cease work almost immediately. The company specializes in refrigeration and air conditioning refurbishment and installation for companies throughout the U.K. As the pandemic picked up momentum, clients didn’t want his workers in their offices, and there were no hotels offering accommodation.
“It was just like flicking a switch,” Secker said. “Everything just stopped overnight.”
Now, as businesses begin to reopen in the U.K. and employees return to work, companies are left to navigate complicated situations.
Sally Parsons works at Woodland Nursery in Bristol, helping out with children under the age of 2 as well as doing administrative work. She was furloughed when the pandemic struck and Woodland closed, but the operations were shifted to their sister nursery in town to look after the children of essential workers. In the course of those tense early months, the nursery and its workers created protocols to keep the children and the workers as safe as possible. By the time Parsons returned to work, there was already a system in place.
“When the official guidelines came out, they were already on top of it, which was quite lucky,” Parsons said.
Sophie Shaw-Foucher is an agent for cinematographers and production designers at Wizz & Co in London, and she is still working from home. There’s been no rush from her manager for any of the employees to return to the office. Each workplace has been left to do the best they can in an uncertain and unpredictable situation. At Shaw-Foucher’s company, the manager has made use of “flexible furloughs.”
Return to Work
Once it became possible to work again at Secker & Sons, Secker needed to get creative. Some of his business pivoted to fitting acrylic screens for pharmacies, a service they had never offered before. On the premises, he adhered to the government guidelines as much as possible.
“We built protective acrylic screens to separate desks, installed sanitizer stations, [and] we provide to the office staff gloves if required. They’re all issued gloves, masks [and] sanitizers. Everything is provided, and they’re kept at a sensible distance,” Secker said.
But acquiring the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) was not an easy task. “It was a nightmare,” he stated.
The National Health Service had priority for the limited PPE available in the country, and Secker’s attempts to buy PPE online were not always successful. Some products were subpar and overpriced. “There were so many crooks on the Internet, they would just take all your money and send you very little and it was difficult,” he said. “But we managed to find a decent supply eventually,” thanks in part to an electrical wholesaler with whom he had previously done business. The wholesaler was able to sell decent PPE at reasonable prices.
Secker’s employees who work in the field doing installation have had to form “bubbles,” which allows them to travel in the same van and work side-by-side during long days. “On every job, they wear the relevant protective equipment,” Secker said.
Parsons’ nursery has had special considerations with return to work. Children and workers don’t wear masks, a decision the employees are comfortable with, Parsons said. Wearing masks is “not a natural thing to children coming to a nursery. They need to feel safe, and they need to feel comfortable around you and I just think when you’ve got a mask, and especially with babies, they rely so much on your expressions that having masks is just taking all of that away,” she said. Instead, the nursery has reduced class sizes, changed the layout of the school so children in different groups don’t cross paths, and spend 80 percent of their time outside.
“We need to really start planning how staff and how children are going to be when it is those horrible winter cold, wet days, but you’ve still got to spend 80 percent of your time outdoors,” Parsons said.
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Concerns About a Possible Second Wave
Despite safety precautions, there is a pervasive worry about the possibility of a second wave and attendant lockdowns.
Shaw-Foucher worries that a lockdown would lead to productions being shut down again, which would mean no work for her clients and no work for her. “That’s our biggest fear at the moment, that there’ll be a second wave,” she said.
“If they throw us into another lockdown, we have no choice on that one. That’s out of our control,” Secker said. “I’ve got concerns because the bulk of our work is away from where we are in Norwich.” If there is work in Leicester or Birmingham but those areas are locked down or Norwich is locked down, Secker’s employees will be unable to work.
Parsons sees people becoming complacent but stays realistic about the situation. “People still think it’s getting back to normal—that the coronavirus thing is gone. It really hasn’t,” she said. “It’s still here and I think it’s [going to] be here for a while.”
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.