Normally Fridays are spent thinking about how to unwind from work. Today though Boris Johnson announced changes to government guidance to get the public back to work, and more specifically, their place of work. From 1 August, the guidance will be changed to give employers more discretion to decide whether their employees should keep working from home or head back to the office. Public transport guidance will be updated as well to encourage people to use it to travel to work – an overdue change, as the guidance has been at odds with other policies for weeks now, and only open for essential journeys despite pubs, restaurants and shops opening back up.
With the furlough scheme starting to wind down from next month, and many city centre businesses on their knees, it’s clear the government is updating its policy in the hopes that it will get more people in the office, protecting both their desk jobs and the service jobs around them.
But it’s not obvious that today’s update amounts to much more than the encouragement of discussion between employers and employees about next steps. While the Prime Minister’s language in People’s PMQs last week was far more bullish about returning to work (‘I want to see more people feeling confident to use the shops, use the restaurants, get back to work.’), the formal guidance has turned out to be fairly neutral. Despite the government mandating the mass-exodus of employees from offices at the start of lockdown, it is now putting the onus on business to facilitate their return. This may be a complicated process. While many businesses can tick the boxes when making their premises Covid-secure, this is not necessarily the same as being ‘safe’ – the new requirement Johnson laid out today. If businesses feel like they will be held accountable for any instance of an employee contracting the virus (possibly not even at work, but on their journey there and back) many will not want to take the risk – reputationally or legally – of being the first to bring their employees back.
As the government encourages the reopening of the economy and the return to work, it wants to avoid one thing at all costs: a second national lockdown. Today’s other big announcement saw a power shift from the Cabinet to local authorities, empowering them in future to carry out local lockdowns, which could include shutting down events, local transport, and even imposing ‘stay at home’ measures for their local residents. Trends around the world suggest Leicester will not be the UK’s only local lockdown – the realistic goal isn’t to avoid lockdowns altogether, but to make them small and targeted, creating as little economic disruption as possible in the rest of the UK.
Another full lockdown this winter would not only be devastating to the economy and for non-Covid health issues, but possibly unaffordable as well. Having racked up hundreds of billions of pounds already this year, government has indicated it may not be as generous with its Covid schemes – furloughing staff in every sector and with business loans and grants – a second time round.
The Prime Minister knows local lockdowns will be challenging, and referenced the sense of injustice that may be felt when neighbours are asked to live very different lifestyles for periods of time. The pressure is on local authorities to prove they can get outbreaks under control relatively quickly – in weeks, not months – in order for people to stay compliant and adhere to lockdown measures once again. More transparency with the R-number may also become necessary.
But despite these challenges, the Prime Minister was notably optimistic, presenting today’s announcements as a pathway to ‘significant normality’ come November. But in order to achieve this, Britain will need a comprehensive track and trace scheme to keep any resurfacing of the virus under control, and a more confident public, ready to return to their lifestyles pre-Covid. Neither are remotely guaranteed.