Boris Johnson has urged employers to bring staff back to the office from 1 August if it is safe to do so.
Setting out the government’s next steps in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister said the guidance for returning to work would be updated to give employers more discretion over where their staff can work.
Return to the office or work from home?
Johnson said: “We’re going to give employers more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.
“That could mean continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees. Or it could mean making workplaces safe.”
Yesterday, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said there was “absolutely no reason” to change the current advice for employees to work from home where possible.
Responding to a question about whether the guidance for businesses was confusing, Johnson said: “It is not for government to decide how employers should run their companies.
“What we are saying now is if employers think it would be better and more productive for employees to come to office, and they can work in a safe way, there should be discussions between employers and employees and people should make a decision.”
CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said: “Today’s announcement signalled that the return to work will increasingly be at the employer’s discretion, but consultation with employees is essential to ensure they have a say in how and when they return.
“It’s vital that organisations consider the physical safety and mental wellbeing of their people before returning them to the existing workplace. They should first consider if they can meet three conditions: is it essential for them to be in the workplace to do their job, is it sufficiently safe and is it mutually agreed with workers? Even with those measures in place the return to workplaces must still be gradual so that social distancing can be maintained.
“A return to work doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the old workplace. A recent survey from CIPD shows employers, overall, report home workers are at least as productive as other workers.”
Johnson said that although organisations had learned “huge lessons” about the potential of technology throughout the lockdown, it was no substitute for human interaction and face-to-face conversations.
He hoped the UK would return to normality by the middle of November and for all restrictions to have been lifted by Christmas, provided progress in reducing the threat of the coronavirus continued.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary at the TUC, said people should return to the office in a phased and safe way.
“The government is passing the buck on this big decision to employers. Getting back to work safely requires a functioning NHS test and trace system. Yet progress on test and trace is still patchy, and the government is still refusing to support workers who have to self-isolate by raising statutory sick pay from just £95 per week to a rate people can live on,” she said.
“A safe return to workplaces also requires much greater investment in public transport if people are to be able to commute to workplaces.
“Not everyone will be able to return to workplaces full-time or immediately. People who have been advised to shield and those without enough childcare may need to work fully from home for the foreseeable future.”
Dr Mark Parrish, regional medical director at medical and security services company International SOS, said organisations must still be cautious about bringing staff back to work as it could result in a backwards step in the return to ‘normal’.
He said: “While no business can guarantee preventing the spread of infection, vital precautionary steps will minimise risks, fulfil duty-of-care responsibilities and promote workforce resilience.
“From new cleaning regimes, isolation zones, PPE provision and ventilation there are a myriad of things that workplaces need to consider. We’re seeing many companies opt for rotas and limitations on numbers in the workplace to make the return to work as safe as possible and enable social distancing. Companies may also need to look at staggering work hours especially if they are to avoid peak travel times for commuters.”
Substantial new powers to tackle local coronavirus outbreaks were also announced by Johnson. Ministers will be able to close whole sectors, or types of premises in an area; introduce local stay at home orders; prevent people entering or leaving defined areas; reduce the maximum size of gatherings beyond national rules or restrict transport systems.
From tomorrow, councils will have the power to close businesses and outdoor spaces, and cancel events.