Trade unions criticise government for pressing on with measures to get people back into the workplace

The Canary

Trade unions have criticised the government’s decision to press on with measures to get people back into the workplace. The new guidance has remained in place despite the government putting the brakes on other lockdown easing plans.

Under the new guidance, which came into force on 1 August, employers can now ask their staff to return to the office. That’s provided that they have implemented coronavirus-control measures. Previously, the government had been asking everyone to work from home where possible.

Even “extremely clinically vulnerable” workers can be asked to return

The guidance states that even those deemed “extremely clinically vulnerable” to the virus can be asked to return to work if their role can’t be done from home. It advises that vulnerable individuals be offered the “safest available on-site roles” or temporarily adjusted working patterns.

The new rules were first announced by Boris Johnson at a press conference on 17 July. He said at the time:

It is not for government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their workforces in the office or not – that is for companies.

3 August is the first working day that the rules have been in place. Other planned lockdown easing measures, such as the opening of casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks, and wedding receptions of up to 30 people, have been delayed by at least two weeks.

Heads of civil service departments were told in late July that they should be “accelerating” their employees back into the workplace.

Commuters wearing protective face masks (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Commuters wearing protective face masks (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“Playing fast and loose”

Civil service head Alex Chisholm said in a letter to all permanent secretaries that it was time to “change the default that civil servants should work from home, and accelerate the return to the workplace from 1 August”.

But the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) accused the government of “playing fast and loose” with workers’ safety. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said:

No-one should be returning to a workplace until it has been made safe to do so.

Current scientific advice is that people should work from home where they can.

Boris Johnson is risking industrial unrest by pursuing this policy and our union will support members who believe their workplace is unsafe to return to.

It appears that despite Chisholm’s letter, various civil service departments have resisted a hurried return to the office. A source in one department said 99% of staff were still working from home.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA Union, which represents managers in the civil service and public servants, accused the government of co-opting civil servants into “virtue signalling”. He tweeted on Monday 3 August:

The majority of civil servants are currently working successfully from home.

Ministers need to recognise this and allow the civil service to manage this transition, without pressure to virtue-signal for a pattern of working that has already changed for good.

Commuters cross London Bridge before lockdown was enforced (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Commuters cross London Bridge before lockdown was enforced (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Flexible working

The Institute of Directors (IoD) believes very few office-based firms would be in a rush to get their staff back into the workplace.

Research conducted in May of almost 1,000 business leaders found that four fifths said they planned to keep increased flexible working, such as working from home, for their office-based employees.

Edwin Morgan, the IoD’s director of policy, said it was hard for businesses to know “whether they’re coming or going”.

With so much uncertainty, not least around public transport and childcare, a number of companies may have to shelve plans for a full return to the office…

The recent delay to reopening indicates that the road ahead won’t be easy.

The IoD is now calling for the government to set up a recovery fund to help small firms return to the workplace safely.

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