New workplace guidelines published by the government just days before most remaining COVID rules are lifted in England have been criticised as a "recipe for chaos".
Employers have been told that from Monday they no longer need to implement social distancing and that, with working from home if possible not being instructed any more, they should plan a gradual return over the summer.
But the TUC, the trade union body, said the government had failed to provide the clarity needed while the Institute of Directors said the guidance had done little to dispel confusion among bosses.
The guidance sets out advice for employers in different sectors, stressing that they still need to "take reasonable steps to manage risks" in workplaces and venues where they operate.
It tells nightclub operators, for example, that they should consider using the NHS COVID pass in order to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Meanwhile in offices and shops, face coverings are no longer required by law but the government still "expects and recommends that people continue to wear a face covering in crowded, enclosed spaces"
For services such as beauticians and hairdressers, employers are told they "may decide… to ask clients or staff to wear a face covering, especially where practitioners are conducting treatments which require them to be in close proximity to a person’s face, mouth and nose".
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: "These new back-to-work safety guidelines are a recipe for chaos and rising infections.
"Instead of providing clear and consistent guidance on how to keep staff safe at work, the government is abandoning workers and employers."
Ms O’Grady said the guidelines would "leave many employers with more questions than answers and worried about their liability if they get things wrong".
She added that wearing face coverings on public transport and in shops ought to remain a legal requirement, arguing: "It is not a matter of ‘personal responsibility’, nor should it be left to individual employers to decide."
Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said: "Like everybody else, businesses across the country having been awaiting ‘freedom day’ with bated breath.
"But instead we have had a series of mixed messages and patchwork requirements from government that have dampened that enthusiasm.
"Return to work or continue to stay at home. Throw away your masks or continue to wear them.
"Today’s long-awaited guidance from government has done little to dispel that confusion."
Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "Many businesses will be keeping in place some of the measures that have become familiar over the last 12 months, including face coverings in certain circumstances.
"Although the government has removed some specific legal restrictions… businesses still have an overall responsibility to minimise risk to their employees and customers.
"Therefore, many are asking questions about whether they will be held liable should they make changes to the way they operate from 19 July.
"Companies now have just five days to make this judgment call and effectively communicate it to their staff and customers."
The guidance comes two days after the government confirmed that most COVID-19 restrictions would end on 19 July while continuing to urge caution – messaging that was criticised as "confusing and contradictory".
Inconsistencies are already starting to appear, with mask-wearing on public transport continuing to be enforced in parts of England including London but bus and train operator Go-Ahead telling Sky News that it will not insist on face coverings for passengers unless ordered.
Meanwhile nightclub operator REKOM UK said it would not be asking for vaccine passports despite the government’s encouragement.
But bookshop chain Waterstones has said that given the "enclosed browsing environment" in its stores it would encourage customers to wear face masks and observe social distancing "respecting the safety of staff and fellow book lovers".
And Sainsbury’s has said its stores will encourage customers to continue to wear face coverings, if they can, from Monday.
The supermarket said: "Colleagues will also be encouraged to wear a face covering, unless they are behind a screen and all of Sainsbury’s leadership team will wear one when visiting stores.
"While wearing a face covering will become a personal choice, the decision to ask everyone in stores to continue to wear a face covering if they can reflects feedback from customers and colleagues where the majority of people surveyed want to keep the policy in place."