Politics

Covid UK: Boris Johnson enforced working from home rules will be scrapped within weeks


Enforced working from home will be scrapped within weeks after Boris Johnson vowed to axe Covid lockdown rules – but fears of a backlash from employees could prompt businesses to let staff stay away from the office.

The Prime Minister confirmed tonight that the drastic legal requirement introduced in March last year that left millions in the spare room or at the kitchen table will be abandoned.

But the move to be taken when Step Four of the roadmap out of lockdown comes into force – most likely on July 19 – will allow employers to choose the pace at which their employers come back to work.

There will also be fresh guidance on how to operate a safe workplace that will be based on Health and Safety Executive (HSE) rules from before the pandemic.

The news will be a boost for city retailers who have suffered from a lack of footfall, and companies with large, expensive premises which have lain empty for months at great expense. 

But it remains to be seen how many firms – and staff – will want to return to full-time workplace life and the financial and time costs that come with it.   

Unions have urged the Government to provide protections for staff looking to continue working flexibly, as a new survey shows one quarter of Britain’s one million financial services workforce want to keep working from home permanently.

And some businesses are bracing for a string of challenges from staff who do not wish to return to the office as lockdown measures ease, while HR advisors warn employers of possible legal claims. 

Peninsula, an employment law consultancy, has taken calls from several businesses whose employees do not want to return to the office, the i reports.  

HR advice and consultancy director at the company’s UK wing, Kate Palmer, said: ‘If a business is saying ”We want you back in now”, they’ve got to make sure they have business reasons for that. But there is nothing to stop them doing that by simply saying ”You work better here”.

The Prime Minister confirmed tonight that the drastic legal requirement introduced in March last year that left millions in the spare room or at the kitchen table will be abandoned

The Prime Minister confirmed tonight that the drastic legal requirement introduced in March last year that left millions in the spare room or at the kitchen table will be abandoned

The news will be a boost for city retailers who have suffered from a lack of footfall, and companies with large, expensive premises which have lain empty for months at great expense.

The news will be a boost for city retailers who have suffered from a lack of footfall, and companies with large, expensive premises which have lain empty for months at great expense.

‘An employee can say ”I do not believe your request is reasonable because I believe in returning there is a serious and imminent threat to my safety”. We’re seeing more employees asserting that right now.’

Ms Palmer added that employers should ‘think carefully’ before insisting there were no grounds for refusing to return. 

She said: ‘It’s not only litigation risk – they have to think about attracting interest in roles, retention and team morale, which are fundamental to the success of the business.’   

And a survey from Accenture found that 24 per cent of financial service workers ‘would prefer to work entirely from home once a full return to office is possible’, and 69 per cent want to work two days or fewer at the office, City AM reports. 

Mr Johnson told the nation tonight: ‘It will no longer be necessary for Government to insist people to work from home. So employers will be able to start planning a safe return to the workplace.’ 

However questions remain over how quickly the changes can come into effect, with people still forced to self-isolate if ‘pinged’ by NHS test and trace, even if they have been double jabbed. 

Unions also urged the Government to provide protections for staff looking to continue working flexibly, as rules that no longer require employees to work from home come to an end.

Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director general, Tony Danker, said businesses must continue putting safety at the heart of their approach to operations.

He said: ‘Firms will be placing a premium on close dialogue with their employees in boosting confidence and will be demonstrating to customers how they are reopening safely and with their interests at the forefront.

‘Meanwhile, Government and the Health & Safety Executive should continue to play a critical role in helping to inform good decision making and risk assessments.

‘In the coming days we need Government to put in place further measures to create this much-needed confidence.

He said this would include knowing whether workplace testing will continue beyond July, gaining clarity on mask wearing for public transport and understanding how the test and release scheme will work in future.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said details around masks in workplaces must be clarified, along with changes to rules on sick pay and enshrining rights to flexible working in law.

She also called on the Government to consult with unions and employers on workplace safety guidance to avoid ‘widespread confusion’ following the PM’s announcement on the easing of restrictions.

She added: ‘As the work from home guidance ends, employers must acknowledge that one size does not fit all.

‘No-one should miss out on flexible working. Ministers must bring in a new right to flexible working for every worker, in every job.

‘Otherwise there will be a new class divide between those who can work flexibly from home, and those who can’t.’

Director general of the British Chambers of Commerce Shevaun Haviland told Sky News businesses still do not have the ‘full picture they desperately need to plan for unlocking’. 

She added: ‘Without clear guidance for businesses around the new proposals, there could be real uncertainty on how they should operate going forward and what they should be doing to keep staff and their customers safe.’ 

But it remains to be seen how many firms - and staff - will want to return to full-time workplace life and the financial and time costs that come with it.

But it remains to be seen how many firms – and staff – will want to return to full-time workplace life and the financial and time costs that come with it.

Director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, Tom Ironside, said: ‘It will take consumers and businesses time to adjust and it is vital that government messaging is clear and consistent so that businesses and consumers easily understand what is expected of them both legally and individually.’ 

National chairman of the Federation Of Small Businesses Mike Cherry said: ‘Small firms have a host of questions they need answering in the next 14 days, among them: is this intervention confirmation enough to buy stock and get staff in place for the 19th?

‘What do I say to staff worried about the safety of public transport? Where do I stand if I lift all restrictions at my business and someone contracts COVID-19 on site? Do I tell staff the office is safe to reopen?’  

Majority of Brits want masks to stay 

The majority of people want face masks to remain compulsory on public transport and in shops beyond this month, a poll has suggested.

Seven in every 10 people (71 per cent) agreed that face masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport for a further period of time once restrictions are lifted, according to the YouGov survey of 2,749 British adults.

Roughly one in five (21 per cent) said masks should not be compulsory.

The survey also found that 66 per cent of those polled said face masks should continue to be mandatory in shops and some enclosed public places – while 27 per cent disagreed.

It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced at a press conference that all legal coronavirus restrictions including mask-wearing, social distancing and nightclub closures will end at Step 4 of the Government’s plan to ease England’s lockdown, which is expected to be on July 19.

According to the poll, survey respondents aged over 65 were more likely to want face masks on public transport (80 per cent) than those aged 18-24 (59 per cent).

There were similar attitudes among the respective age groups when it came to such restrictions in shops – with 78 per cent of people aged over 65 wanting face masks to continue, compared with 57 per cent of those aged 18-24.

Big businesses including accountancy giant Deloitte are adopting ‘hybrid models’ for staff, allowing them to split time between their office and home working.

The Government also recently introduced carnet train season tickets that allow people to work from the office a few days per week and be at home the rest.

But in a blow to businesses, especially pubs and restaurants, the Prime Minister said tonight that while he intends to alter quarantine rules for the twice vaccinated it will not happen on July 19 or whenever Step Four starts.

Business leaders have called for the rule to be axed, with many hospitality venues being crippled by a shortage of staff because when one is forced to isolate many others are who worked in close proximity with them.

Speaking to the nation tonight Mr Johnson said: ‘We will continue from Step Four to manage the virus with a test trace and isolate system that is proportionate to the pandemic.

‘You will have to self isolate if you test positive or are told to do so by NHS test and trace. But we are looking to move to a different regime for fully vaccinated contacts of those testing positive and also for children.’ 

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth questioned the lack of talk of measures to improve the safety of workplaces.

Responding to a statement in the Commons by Sajid Javid at the same time as the press conference, he said: ‘Masks are effective because we know the virus is airborne.

‘He could mitigate further Covid risks by insisting on ventilation standards in premises and crowded buildings. He could offer grants for air filtration systems. Instead all we get is more advice.

‘Ventilation in buildings and grants to support air filtration systems don’t restrict anyone’s freedoms.’

Pubs and restaurants already hit by severe labour shortages are being forced to close and thousands of staff sent home due to the NHS Covid app repeatedly telling them to self-isolate amid soaring case numbers – with bosses demanding a ‘test and release’ scheme instead.

It comes as a lobby group of 50 business leaders, London First, has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to beg that working from home be ‘no longer the default’. 

The letter, seen by The Times, read: ‘At this critical moment, we believe that it is essential that the government is unambiguous in its communications that when the ”stage four” restrictions lift, public transport is safe, offices are safe, and work-from-home is no longer the default.

‘Employers can then move forward with plans for new ways of working, considering the needs of their staff, clients and customers.’

Signatories of the letter include BT CEO Philip Jansen and the chief executive of Capita Jonathan Lewis.

Tamzen Isacsson, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) said:

The UK recorded another 24,248 cases of Covid and a further 15 deaths yesterday

The UK recorded another 24,248 cases of Covid and a further 15 deaths yesterday

‘There will be no rush back to the office for our sector as we have always worked remotely or on client site and firms will continue to stagger staff visits to the office through the summer. 

‘Additionally, many firms have also reduced their available office space already. Given the current trends of higher infection rates there will inevitably be more disruption to staff who will have to self-isolate, not be able to travel and may have to support children isolating from school and it’s important all businesses encourage staff to adhere to the guidelines.’

Deloitte is the latest of several companies to announce plans for hybrid working, following Asda, Lloyds, Barclays and HSBC Banks, as well as call-centre operator Capita and British Gas owner Centrica.

Asda became the latest firm to announce that it will allow head office staff to work from home on a permanent basis. The supermarket said it will introduce a hybrid model for the around 4,000 employees at its two main bases in Leeds and Leicester.

Employees will be able to work from any location best suited to their job. Bosses said there will be no set number of days staff will be expected in the office but they should talk to their managers to ‘strike the right balance between home and office working, whilst ensuring this is led by the needs of the business’.

Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB union, said: ‘The Prime Minister’s so called ”freedom day” plans are not addressing the freedom of workers to be free from floating germs or from being safe at work.

‘It is difficult to see how making workers more scared to go into workplaces or putting them under greater risk of being ill is any sense a civil right that he should be thanked for. This pandemic isn’t over and we can’t go back to business as usual.’

Work from home when you’re ill, avoid others if you’ve got a cough and keep washing your hands regularly: The Covid habits the NHS’ top doctor wants people to follow after July 19

Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England, said pandemic habits 'would be really great to continue because it will keep Covid under control, but also other infections as well'

Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England, said pandemic habits ‘would be really great to continue because it will keep Covid under control, but also other infections as well’

People should still follow basic Covid precautions when the bulk of lockdown curbs are lifted this month, one of Britain’s top doctors insisted today. 

Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said he hoped to see good ‘habits’ learned during the pandemic stick around as the country learns to live with the virus. 

He told BBC Breakfast this morning that people should continue to wash their hands frequently and avoid others and work from home when they feel unwell.

Not only will this tame Covid, it will also ‘keep other infections under control’, Professor Powis added. 

There is no need for everyone to continue wearing face masks, but it would be ‘very appropriate’ for vulnerable and elderly people to do so, particularly if infection rates spike again. 

Professor Powis’ comments come as the Government and its advisers try to prepare Britons for a post-lockdown world. 

Boris Johnson is due to outline exactly what that will look like at a 5pm press conference today, where he’s expected to urge people to use their own judgement to manage the risk of Covid instead of relying on official rules. 

Mandatory mask-wearing is expected to be ditched everywhere except in hospitals and other health facilities when the remaining curbs are lifted in England on July 19.

Mr Johnson will also confirm an end to the two metre social distancing rule, while pubs and other venues will not have to collect customer details and will again be able to serve drinks at the bar for the first time since the pandemic began. 

Time for the bar! From table service to working from home, those changing rules 

Boris Johnson is to declare an end to most lockdown restrictions from July 19 today, with social distancing rules, the work from home order, and mask mandates to be ditched as he will argue that we must learn to live with coronavirus as we do with the flu.

The Prime Minister will use a press conference this afternoon to confirm a bonfire of virus rules and restrictions from the so-called Freedom Day later this month, in which he will say that individuals will again be able to judge the risks of coronavirus for themselves. 

PUBS AND RESTAURANTS

Hospitality venues in England will no longer be required to collect track and trace data from July 19. Businesses won’t have to ask customers to scan a QR code using the NHS phone app on entry or to hand over their contact details, although they will have the option of continuing to do so if they wish. Mandatory table service rules will also be scrapped, meaning drinkers will be able to order at the bar again in pubs.

MASKS

Wearing masks will become voluntary everywhere apart from hospitals and other health facilities from July 19 in England. Public transport passengers, shoppers and those visiting pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres will no longer be required by law to cover up. However, people may still be encouraged to wear masks in some enclosed places where they come into close contact with each other, for example on London Tube trains.

HOLIDAYS

Double-jabbed Britons will be allowed to enjoy a foreign break without having to isolate when they return to England. People who have had both vaccine doses will no longer have to quarantine for ten days after visiting amber list countries, such as Spain, France and Greece. It is possible the change to the travel rules will come into force on July 19, but Government sources last night cautioned that this date is seen as ‘ambitious’.

TEST AND TRACE

People in England who have received both coronavirus vaccine doses will no longer have to isolate at home for ten days if they have come into contact with someone who tests positive. They will be offered lateral flow tests to do themselves at home instead, although these will not be compulsory. The change could come into force on July 19, although the date has not yet been finalised.

SCHOOLS

The bubbles system that has seen whole classes or year groups sent home if just one pupil tests positive for coronavirus will be scrapped in England. Ministers are planning to announce a new way of handling outbreaks ready for the new school year in September. Instead of sending children home en masse, those who have come into contact with a positive case are likely to be given daily tests.

WORK FROM HOME

The official guidance telling people to ‘work from home if you can’ will be scrapped on July 19 in England. But it will be left up to employers and their staff to decide whether they have to go back to their desks. Ministers will not launch a campaign encouraging staff back to the office and are resigned to there not being a mass return to workplaces this summer.

England’s original Freedom Day on June 21 was pushed back a month because of fears about the ultra-infectious Indian variant, which started spiralling out of control in May.

Infections have risen ten-fold in the past two months and there are now an average 25,000 people catching the virus every day.

But ministers have grown increasingly confident in the vaccines because deaths and hospitalisations have not spiralled at the same pace.

There are just over 300 Covid hospital admissions every day now — 10 times fewer than the last time infections were this high in February — and 17 daily deaths. 

Professor Powis agreed that it was time for restrictions to be lifted but urged people to continue to use their ‘common sense’ when it came to socialising.

Asked if he would still voluntarily wear a mask, he told BBC Breakfast: ‘I’ll be following the guidance as I have throughout.

‘There may be occasions in the next few months in a crowded environment where I might choose to wear a mask and I’m sure others will make similar choices.

‘I think people have gotten very aware of infection control and good hygiene over the last 16 months.

‘Some of the habits we’ve developed – washing hands more frequently, not going to work or not going to see people if you are feeling unwell – those are habits that it would be really great to continue because it will keep Covid under control, but also other infections as well. 

‘Many people will use common sense and if they want to be cautious, particularly over the next few weeks as infection rates are still high, then wearing a mask would be very appropriate.’

He said cases will keep going up over the next few weeks and hospital admissions are expected to rise ‘modestly’.

‘But as I say, at the moment, things are looking very good. 

‘The analysis that public health officials are doing show the effectiveness of the vaccine and that of course underlines the need to get as many people vaccinated as possible,’ he added.

Across the UK, nearly 45.3million people have had their first dose, while 33.6million have had their second.

Professor Powis said yesterday that the vaccines had ‘severely weakened’ the link between infections, hospital admissions and deaths.

Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which played a key role in developing AstraZeneca’s coronavirus jab, also said today that he not stop wearing face coverings completely.

He told BBC 4’s Today programme: ‘I will continue to wear a mask in some situations, but I think again, it’s a question of what does the data show us when we get further through the year.’  

Asked about whether the plans to ease restrictions in two weeks was a good idea, he said: ‘Well we don’t quite know what happens next and I think that uncertainty is why you are seeing debate between scientists about what the right thing to do is or not. 

‘We are in a position at the moment where there are unvaccinated people in those risk groups, so the absolute priority is we need to make sure there’s access and we need to find out who those individuals are to protect them. 

‘Because the virus is spreading in the community and will continue to do so. And the people at greatest risk over this summer is going to be anyone who is unvaccinated and in a risk group, so particularly older adults and those with other health conditions.’  

Over the last few weeks, the Prime Minister and his ministers have repeated calls for the country to learn to live with Covid ‘as we already do with flu’.

Later today, Mr Johnson will announce plans to move the onus of Covid precautions onto individuals, rather than mandatory measures.

Robert Jenrick, Housing Secretary, told Sky News yesterday: ‘We are now going to move into a period where there won’t be legal restrictions – the state won’t be telling you what to do – but you will want to exercise a degree of personal responsibility and judgement.’

Under the blueprint, hospitality venues will no longer have to record track and trace information from customers, but can continue to do this if they choose to.

Customers will also be able to go to the bar to order, with strict table service measures coming to an end.

People returning from a holiday abroad in an amber country, who have received both jabs, may no longer have to isolate for 10 days.

Those who have had both vaccines may not need to isolate at home if they had contact with someone who has the virus. 

But these changes to isolation rules may come into force after July 19.

Mr Johnson is also expected to outline a new approach to Covid in schools from the beginning of the school year in September. 

The current approach has been criticised, with hundreds of thousands of pupils being forced to stay at home because just one classmate tests positive.

The Prime Minister will also announce a change to work from home rules, with companies being permitted to decide whether their staff will be returning to the office.

The announcement of the Freedom Day blueprint comes as infection rates continue to rise. Figures from Sunday show that 24,248 people tested positive for the virus, the highest number since January 26.

But the number of people dying within 28 days of a positive test has remained a fraction of this number, with just 15 deaths recorded yesterday. 



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