Boris Johnson has signalled that work-from-home guidance for England will be lifted next month if Covid-19 cases continue to drop.
Asked about the government’s advice to workers, and whether it would be relaxed on June 21, the prime minister told the House of Commons: “That is certainly our intention provided we stay on track . . . we must be guided by what’s happening with the pandemic.”
This week business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told company leaders that he was increasingly confident that the rules for workplaces could be relaxed within weeks.
Ministers hope that workers will be allowed back into offices from late June without mandatory wearing of face masks, enforced social distancing or need for coronavirus vaccine certification.
The government is set to drop its “work from home where you can” guidance next month if the UK’s vaccine rollout continues to reduce numbers of Covid-19 cases, according to government sources.
Ministers have consulted business groups about how far to relax workplace rules, with hopes that many employers can return to near pre-pandemic working practices next month.
The civil service is also preparing for officials to return to their Whitehall offices from the end of June, albeit on a more flexible “hybrid” model with more homeworking than before.
When the pandemic began last year, workers were ordered to work from home by government diktat. In May 2020, as the first lockdown ended, ministers provided guidance to enable a coronavirus-safe return to workplaces.
That saw an end to hot desking, the closure of staff canteens, lifts kept half-empty and social distancing enforced by floor tape — with many banks and shops installing plastic screens.
Kwarteng told business leaders at a meeting this week that he was confident the government would ease those strict guidelines, which could leave most decisions over mask wearing and social distancing to the employer.
One person who attended the meeting said that Kwarteng was bullish over the prospects of returning to the workplace with few restrictions. Officials are keen for normal conditions to return as quickly as possible.
At present people are advised to stay “one-metre plus” apart indoors while wearing face coverings.
A final decision will not be made until a review of social distancing by ministers, due to report before June 21.
Johnson said last week that the four-step plan to end lockdown was on track, adding: “We have got a good chance of being able to dispense with the one-meter plus from June 21.”
BEIS, the business department, said ministers would say more this month about the rules: “As the prime minister has said, we remain on track to move to step four of our road map on June 21 where we hope to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact.”
There are concerns over the economic impact of ongoing workplace restrictions on city centres. Many businesses still have the vast majority of staff working from home, which has hit city centre retail and hospitality businesses, but most are also expected to open offices fully when the guidance changes.
Companies are seeking guidance from government as soon as possible to know whether or not they need to commit to costly office alterations and personnel limits, if social distancing is maintained.