Boris Johnson has been urged to produce a “credible plan” for persuading more workers to return to the office instead of relying on what unions have condemned as a “scare campaign”.
The prime minister, and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have become increasingly concerned about the impact on city centre economies of the shift towards home-working during the pandemic.
They are expected to launch a publicity campaign in the coming days to encourage more workers to return to the office, and advise employers about what they can do to keep staff safe.
On Friday, Downing Street distanced the government from reports that ministers planned to argue that working from home could put employees at greater risk of being fired.
Responding to a Daily Telegraph headline that said: “Go back to work or risk losing your job”, a government source said: “This is a deeply irresponsible headline with no truth behind it. Our priority has always and will always be protecting people’s jobs.”
The Trades Union Congress general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the government’s priority should be improving the test-and-trace system, and tackling practical issues, such as transport and childcare.
“The prime minister needs a credible plan to help more people travel and work safely, not a scare campaign.
“Throughout this crisis millions of people have worked extremely hard from home, often in cramped bedrooms with limited equipment or balancing work with childcare.
“Many now want a better balance of office- and home-based working. But before this can happen, ministers must take responsibility for guaranteeing workers’ safety with a fast and reliable test-and-trace system, and better enforcement of transport safety and workplace risk assessments.”
She said the government should “wake up” to the impact limited childcare provision was having on many parents’ ability to return to work.
The Confederation of British Industry’s director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, has warned of the risk of “ghost towns” if more office workers do not return to their workplaces.
But industry experts cautioned against the idea that the government should decide when was the right time to return.
Kate Shoesmith, the director of sales and marketing at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said: “Steadily reopening the economy, including workplaces, is important for reducing the long-term effects of this crisis on jobs, incomes and opportunities. But when to reopen is a choice for individual businesses to make in collaboration with their staff. Public health and safety has to be the number one priority.
“Government’s focus should be on making sure their guidance is clear, that public transport can be used safely, and that businesses have access to enough health and safety supplies.”
Peter Cheese, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “The government’s drive for individuals to return to their workplace should not leave them feeling pressured or duty-bound to do so.” He added that working from home had proved successful for many staff and organisations, with CIPD research having found that a majority of employers believed homeworkers were either as productive as other workers, or more so.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said on Friday there was a limit “in human terms” to remote working.
Speaking on Sky News from his home, Shapps said: “What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back to work and your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure that it is coronavirus-safe to work and you will see some changes if you haven’t been in for a bit as a result.
“The vast majority of employers just want to get their businesses back up and running, they want to do the right thing, and many will have found that, actually, home-working can work for some of their employees.”
But he added: “I think there’s a limit, just in human terms, to remote working. And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress. So I think common sense will prevail.”
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