Boris Johnson has for long been keen to get workers back into their offices and revive England’s lifeless city centres, and on Monday the prime minister finally set out plans to scrap his “work from home” guidance.
However, employers, trade unions and some ministers said the expected change on July 19 would not unleash any immediate dramatic shift in commuter patterns, and that more homeworking by office workers would be a lasting legacy of the coronavirus crisis.
Business groups, meanwhile, expressed fears that the removal of legal requirements on mask wearing and social distancing could create friction between employers, their staff and customers as people trickle back to the workplace.
“Critical now will be to build both customer and employee confidence in living with the virus,” said Tony Danker, CBI director-general.
Downing Street said ministers would not exhort people to return to their workplaces on July 19 — dubbed “freedom day” — if Johnson pressed ahead with his proposed full reopening of the economy in England.
But with the Delta variant of the virus fuelling rapid growth in cases, business groups and unions said the government could not “wash its hands” of giving clear guidance after most Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
“After enforcing restrictions for so long, the government must not simply withdraw and allow a free-for-all,” said Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, adding that small companies had a “host of questions they need answering in the next 14 days”.
Johnson, who as a former London mayor knows full well how Covid-19 hit the capital hard, has in the past made the case for office staff to return to the workplace so as to bolster service businesses in city centres.
In March he said people had “had quite a few days off”, adding, “it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office”.
But on Monday Johnson insisted the return to the office was a matter for bosses and their staff.
Current government rules say “everyone who can work from home must do so” in England. That is expected to be scrapped on July 19 along with the “one metre plus” rule on social distancing in public settings, and masks are set to no longer be legally required in shops or on public transport.
Johnson is also due to announce this week that people who have had two jabs of a Covid-19 vaccine will no longer be forced to self-isolate if a work colleague contracts coronavirus. Regular testing is expected to replace that disruptive regime.
One minister predicted that it would become normal for office staff to work from home “two or three days” a week. The government, however, has no plans to introduce a legal right to work from home.
Government officials also said they had no plans to introduce new labour laws: for example, a right for a worker to refuse to come into the office where masks and social distancing are no longer company policy.
Business groups said their members were concerned at what their legal liability might be if they remove safeguards and then see a surge in cases among workers.
However, they were keen to see a relaxation of the rules on self-isolation, preferring to rely on regular testing — with the proviso that many companies would struggle to afford lateral flow devices if the government stopped funding them at the end of July, as currently proposed.
Business groups also welcomed the lifting of the one metre social distancing rule — which has made it impossible for many companies, especially in the hospitality sector, to generate a profit — and the new discretion for employers to decide how to bring staff back to the workplace.
Many companies have begun allowing staff to return to the office, while testing hybrid arrangements involving some homeworking that could become permanent.
Survey data released last week by the Office for National Statistics showed that 11 per cent of the workforce at businesses currently trading had moved from furlough or homeworking to a hybrid model in the last two weeks, with a similar proportion set to do so in the next fortnight.
But Google mobility data showed that travel to the workplace remained about 30 per cent below its pre-pandemic baseline for the UK as a whole.
Business groups said there was unlikely to be a sudden change in working practices after the formal lifting of curbs.
“Freedom day shouldn’t signal a mass return to workplaces, but it could signal the start of greater freedom and flexibility in how, when and where people work,” said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD organisation for HR professionals.
Regardless of changes to government guidance, employers would need to keep safety measures — on desk spaces, shift patterns, or one-way systems — in place initially, added Cheese, but they should also offer staff who could not work from home more flexibility.
Meanwhile, ministers are under pressure to keep mandatory mask wearing in shops and on public transport.
Paddy Lillis, general secretary of Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, said it was “not the right time to water down safety in stores” and that talk of “personal responsibility” by ministers ignored the reality that public-facing workers had no choice but to interact with large numbers of people.
The RMT union, which represents transport workers, accused the government of “going for a free for all”.
Additional reporting by Clive Cookson and Oliver Barnes