Last week, the Prime Minister announced that Government guidance on home working to contain the spread of COVID-19 will soon change. From next month, employers will be asked to make decisions about how their staff can work safely, which could involve a return to working on-site.
The proportion of the workforce who worked from home sky rocketed to 46% during the pandemic. For many, this will have presented a welcome change, enabling an improved work life balance, with the time usually spent travelling freed up for family or caring responsibilities, exercise, or other activities to support and improve wellbeing. At this early stage, it does seem that this could become a longer-term trend - some large employers are already announcing a move away from office based working towards a remote model.
But such a transition comes with a series of economic costs, many of which are being felt most acutely in our town and city centres. Without office workers on the hunt for lunch, running errands or seeking out a post-work drink, many retail and hospitality firms have struggled to resume trading since the lockdown eased. The Centre for Cities estimates footfall in town and city centres is just 45% of what is was before the crisis hit. Clearly, there is a need for Government to navigate these challenges, recognising the role that city centres stand to play in our economic recovery.
It is not surprising then that focus is now shifting to encouraging employers to consider bringing their staff back to their workplaces next month. The PM explained last week that "our view is that it is safe provided that employers have taken the steps that they need to take" to ensure a workplace is "COVID secure".
However, making a workplace “COVID secure” will require complex planning and may mean re-thinking the way work is delivered. While some guidance has been issued, resources to support employers to plan a return to work are limited and plans for ‘spot check’ health and safety inspections announced at the start of lockdown appear to have fallen through. The extent to which businesses are equipped to re-open in these circumstances remains unclear, with the British Chambers’ of Commerce reporting that only 37% of businesses believe they are able to implement the government's working safely guidance and restart fully, with 10% stating they would not be able to open at all.
And the drive to re-open businesses must go hand in hand with an aligned strategy to safely re-open other services that workers depend upon. Planning a return to site-based work for August, before schools and nurseries re-open, and at a time when many childcare services face collapse, will put additional pressures on parents. During the lockdown women have been doing 50% more childcare than men, which could mean mothers are less likely to be able to return to work.
People with long-term conditions who have been in the ‘shielded group’ will face new challenges too. From the 1st August, new guidance will take effect which states that shielding is no longer required, but also encourages those who have been in the group to “stay at home as much as you can and continue to take precautions when you do go out.” Concerning evidence from Citizens Advice has found that 12% of those within the shield group had continued to work outside of their home during the crisis. As employers shift away from home working as the default, a greater proportion of people with long-term health conditions could face a similar decision.
The Government also announced last week that it is giving new powers to local authorities to take action to contain the spread of the virus at a local level. It’s essential the data councils use to inform their decision-making is also used to shape communications to local employers about risk levels and suggested mitigation measures. As the possibility of further local lockdowns arises, engagement between local areas, NHS trusts and local businesses will become critical.
Clearly the calculations of when it is safe to resume pre-crisis patterns of economic and social behaviour are fraught with uncertainty. But to see the need to manage the public health crisis and re-open the economy as competing objectives is a mistake. Effective public health guidance and measures must be at the heart of any plans to reopen services and businesses.
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