Boris Johnson has announced that people in England should work from home if they can from 13 December as the government confirmed it was triggering ‘plan B’ of its Covid-19 winter response.
The prime minister announced fresh restrictions in order to curb the spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant. “Employers should use the rest of this week to discuss working arrangements with their employees,” said Johnson, “but from Monday you should work from home if you can. Go to work if you must, but work from home if you can.
“I know this will be hard for many people, but by reducing your contacts in the workplace you will help slow transmission.”
Other measures announced include, from this Friday, an extension of the legal requirement to wear a face mask in most public indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas, with exemptions where it is not practical, “such as when eating, drinking, exercising or singing”. The government will next week also make the NHS Covid Pass mandatory for entry into nightclubs, and other venues where large crowds gather.
While Johnson made his announcement in Downing Street, health secretary Sajid Javid updated MPs in the House of Commons saying that the UK is “working night and day” to better understand the Omicron variant.
He said Omicron is “significantly more” transmissible than the Delta variant and analysis suggests it takes only 2.5 to 3 days for cases of the variant to double. “By the end of this month, infections could exceed one million,” he said.
Peter Cheese chief executive of the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said: “Many businesses and their people have learned how to work remotely at scale and at speed during the pandemic so will be well placed to respond to this change in guidance. Reducing the number of people in workplaces when they can work from home is the sensible thing to do while infections are climbing and we’re still learning about Omicron, keeping individuals safe and businesses staffed.
“Where people can only do their jobs from a place of work, flexibility on how and when they work can help to minimise exposure to other people. Measures like flexible hours and staggered start times will help to avoid overcrowded spaces both on the commute and in the workplace – as will increased safety measures on site, such as changes to workplace configuration and requiring staff to wear masks in certain contexts
“The duty of care as employers extends to company organised social events as well. We’d encourage organisations to follow the spirit of today’s revised guidance and to avoid any in-person end of year parties, while recognising individuals are still free to meet in a personal capacity.”
He added that employers should continue to support their staff in accessing vaccines, allowing flexibility on hours worked and offering paid time off to attend appointments.
Employers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have been encouraged to allow staff to work from home in order to reduce the spread of infection. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked people in the country to work from home until at least the middle of January.
Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, commented: “Businesses will be concerned by the introduction of Plan B, after all the work that has been done over the past few months to get the economy performing. This is especially true in hospitality where restrictions could have a devastating effect, especially at this time of year.
“But ultimately, government and business both have an obligation to keep people safe, and the steps in Plan B do not amount to another lockdown. It’s right to be cautious and limit some social contact until we know more about how dangerous Omicron is. What we need now is a full plan of action as soon as possible – including what restrictions will be in place, for how long, and a package of support for those businesses and workers that will be badly affected.”
Epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, warned yesterday that a lockdown in the New Year could not be ruled out, with Omicron likely to overtake Delta as the most dominant strain of Covid-19 by Christmas.
“Clearly if the consensus is it is highly likely that the NHS is going to be overwhelmed then it will be for the government to decide what it wants to do about that but it’s a difficult situation to be in of course,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday.
“[A lockdown] certainly might be possible at the current time.”
Lottie Bazley, senior strategic internal communications adviser at communictions platform Staffbase, said employers will need to inform staff about how changes to guidance will affect their organisations.
“While businesses cannot predict changes from the UK government, they need to act fast to disseminate vital information across their organisations – responding to working from home guidance and lockdowns, as well as communicating the company’s own plans for remote working,” she said.
“The first year of the pandemic saw internal communications become a top priority for many organisations, and highlighted the need to communicate effectively as a key leadership skill. So it’s important that communicators build on the progress that has been made as we enter a new phase of restrictions, to ensure a smooth transition to working from home.”
This article was initially published on 8 December and updated on 9 December. Additional reporting by Ashleigh Webber.