Government announces U-turn on office working

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Coronavirus

People in England should return to working from home “if they can”, a government minister has said, in an apparent U-turn on previous government messaging.

Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, made the announcement in a series of interviews on Tuesday morning, saying that workers should return to working remotely where possible and only attend their workplaces should their job “require it”.

The interview came the morning before prime minister Boris Johnson announced a tightening of coronavirus restrictions including making face masks compulsory for bar staff, shop workers and taxi drivers, and reducing opening hours of pubs, bars and restaurants, requiring them to close by 10pm from Thursday.

Cases of covid-19 are rising fast in the UK and could reach 50,000 new cases per day by mid-October, the government’s top science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, announced on Monday.  He also warned that covid-related deaths could number 200 per day by mid-November if action was not taken to slow the spread of the virus.

Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there had been a change in advice, and employers should now be encouraging working from home instead of returning to offices.

“We are stressing that if it is safe to work in your workplace, if you are in a covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it,” he said.  “But if you can work from home you should.”

When asked if this was a change to official advice, Gove said it was.  But he told BBC Breakfast that England was “not going back to the sorts of measures that we had in the spring”, when strict nationwide lockdown measures were imposed to restrict the reasons people could leave their homes.

In a “People’s PMQs” session on social media in July, Johnson told people to “start to go back to work now if you can”.  And in the last month the government has encouraged workers to return to offices, amid rising numbers of layoffs in the hospitality sector as footfall has dropped in urban centres, saying that many workplaces were now “covid secure”.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Monday, Sir Patrick Vallance stressed the figures given were not a prediction, but added: “At the moment, we think the ep-idemic is doubling roughly every seven days.

“The challenge, therefore, is to make sure the doubling time does not stay at seven days,” Vallance said. “That requires speed, it requires action and it requires enough in order to be able to bring that down.”

On Tuesday lunchtime Boris Johnson warned the House of Commons that the UK had reached “a perilous turning point” as he set out new restrictions to combat coronavirus that could last for up to six months.

He told MPs that businesses in the hospitality sector would be restricted to table service only and required to close at 10pm and that the limit on wedding attendees would be reduced from thirty to fifteen.

Face masks will now also be compulsory for retail staff, waiters, bar staff and taxi drivers, and for customers of bars and restaurants while they are not sat at their tables, with the fines for breaking the rules increased to £200.

“We always knew that while we might have driven the virus into retreat, the prospect of a second wave was real.  I’m sorry to say that, as in Spain and France and many other countries, we’ve reached a perilous turning point,” he said.

After a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee this morning, Johnson told the Commons he would provide police and local authorities with extra funding to increase enforcement of the regulations and the option to draw on military support.  He also warned that failure by the public to follow the rules could mean the government would be forced to implement even stricter controls.

The UK’s coronavirus alert level was upgraded from three to four on Monday, meaning the risk of transmission is “high or rising exponentially”.

In an interview with Sky News, Gove described the latest changes in restrictions as a “shift in emphasis” and unavoidable as coronavirus infection rates continued to rise.  “It’s important to stress that there are many roles which can’t be performed from home … where we recognise that that’s simply impossible,” Gove said.

“We need to balance, obviously, the need to ensure that people can continue to work and, critically, continue to go to school against taking steps to try to reduce the virus,” he said.

Additionally, Gove told BBC Breakfast this morning that trials of spectators at sporting events would be “paused” until the rate of covid infections was brought down.

22nd September 2020