Ministers offer conflicting return-to-work messages


Advice around whether people should return to offices remains conflicted, with Boris Johnson urging people to think about returning to the workplace while health secretary Matt Hancock has encouraged more home working.

Although official government advice remains “work from home if you can”, the Prime Minister has urged employees to consider “cautiously” going back to work.

“What I want to see is people, who have been working from home for a long time, now talking to their employers, talking to their places of work, about the steps that have been taken and looking to come back to work in a safe way,” the Prime Minister said.

“I do think people should start to think about getting back to work but provided we all continue to follow the precautions.”

However, speaking at an event hosted by female business leaders club AllBright, Hancock said working from home and flexible working is “the new norm” and something that “all good employers” should accommodate.

“We need to persuade people that allowing flexible working should continue. This is a change that is never going to go away,” he said.

He indicated that this right could be enshrined in law. Currently, employees have the right to request flexible working, but there is no automatic right to work from home.

Commenting on the conflicting messages, Nick Thorpe, a partner at law firm Fieldfisher, said: “It’s clear that Boris is hoping that a large scale return to work will result in improved productivity and economic recovery. But many businesses have responded well to large percentage of their workplace working from home and are now looking at re-modelling their workforce and work space. They are looking beyond ‘work from home’ to a ‘work from anywhere’ approach.

“Looking at Hancock’s comments, the UK may not yet be ready for a statutory right to work from home. Flexible working rights already give employees the opportunity to put forward a business case to work from home and it will be much more difficult going forward for employers to refuse such requests in future, if employees have worked effectively from home during lockdown.”

The government is facing calls to make face coverings mandatory in offices, as they become compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from 24 July. The new rule, however, does to apply to retail staff.

Mark Hall, founder of health and safety software company Protecting, said anybody working in the public or private sector should be required to wear a face covering,

“Since June 15 face coverings have been mandatory on public transport and now from the 24 July they will be compulsory in shops. We have two issues with this; why have we waited so long and why is it not mandatory for all workers to wear them?” he said.

“Matt Hancock is fully expected to confirm on Tuesday that government guidance will be updated to make the wearing of face coverings in shops and supermarkets compulsory. Guidance for other settings will be kept under review, why?”

A survey of 800 office workers by Protecting found 98% were willing to wear a face mask at work to protect themselves and others.

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