PM says employees can return to work if safe from 1st August

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister has announced that from 01/08/20 employers can bring staff back to work if they believe it is COVID-19 safe.

The Prime Minister has also said under the new guidelines that people may use public transport again, making it possible to travel to work.

Mr 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.

There has been plenty of confusion surrounding the Government’s advice regarding how to work in a safe fashion during the pandemic. On 14/07/20 Mr Johnson and Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, comments left companies unclear on whether or not employees should return to the office. As Mr Johnson said office workers should start to return to work whereas Mr Hancock has said that remote working should be legally protected.

Yesterday (16/07/20) Sir Patrick Vallance, UK’s chief scientific adviser said there is “absolutely no reason” to alter the stance that remote working is the best way forward in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.  Mr Vallance said that remote working is a “perfectly good option”.

When asked about the confusing messages the Government is giving out regarding what people should do, Mr 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.

Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) is positive about the announcement and said:

Businesses will welcome the Government’s new guidance for work, which reflects calls from the REC and other organisations. With the virus now in retreat, it is right to focus on opening up safe workplaces, not just working from home. More homeworking will be a permanent feature of the jobs market from now on – but there are lots of things businesses cannot do without workplaces open, and that would hold the economy back without today’s step. It’s also right that staff should be consulted on plans to open up. Employee confidence is as important as business confidence if we are to get growth going again.

To make this work, employers will need to be familiar with clear guidance on making workplaces safe and they will need to update their risk assessments. Anxiety about using public transport is also likely to be a challenge in cities and larger towns. A robust plan for how the transport system will cope with extra demand and how important rules like mask-wearing will be enforced will be vital. Ensuring high performance from NHS Test and Trace will also be important to managing the virus.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) believes “the Government is passing the buck on this big decision to employers.”

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC said:

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 £95pw to a rate people can live on.

A safe return to workplaces also requires much greater investment in public transport if people are to be able to commute to workplaces.

Before reopening any workplace, every employer must complete a risk assessment, and make plans to reduce the risk to workers through enabling social distancing. They must consult their staff trade unions, and larger employers should publish the risk assessment on their website.    

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.  

Many businesses have seen the benefits of flexible approaches to working during this pandemic. This progress must not be lost. All staff should have the right to work flexibly from their first day in the job.

Others are also concerned regarding this announcement, such as James Taylor, executive director of strategy, impact and social change at Scope, a disability charity who explains this message will alarm disabled people as two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths have been disabled people. Mr Taylor said:

Today’s comments from the Prime Minister will ring alarm bells for many disabled people, who feel extremely anxious about plans to pause shielding from August 1.

Two thirds of those who have died from Covid-19 were disabled. The virus has not gone away. Millions of disabled people at greater risk of coronavirus feel their fears are not being taken into account and feel forgotten by the government. Research by Scope found just five per cent of disabled people feel safe about plans to pause shielding.

Disabled people must be able to have flexibility about returning to their workplace. Leaving this to the discretion of employers will create inconsistency, and does little to reassure those disabled people who fear being forced to choose between protecting their health and paying the bills.

It’s welcome the Government has stated in guidance that it will make sure disabled people can have independent lives. However, we now need to know what this means in practice and have reassurance that rights are protected throughout the pandemic and beyond.