Has government policy on going back to work just shifted? Today at his "People’s PMQs", the Prime Minister was asked about support for universities and the social distancing measures that will be needed to make it safe for students and faculty to return. But Boris Johnson applied his response further than the university sector, turning the formal guidance - 'working from home where possible' - on its head:
‘I want people to go back to work as carefully as possible – it’s very important that people should be going back to work if they can, now. I think everybody’s taken the ‘stay at home if you can’. I think now we should say ‘go back to work if you can’. Because I think it’s very important that people should try to live their lives more normally and I want to see more people feeling confident to use the shops, use the restaurants, get back to work.’
This new advice follows on from Rishi Sunak’s summer statement this week, which announced a host of policies to get employees back to work. Most of the announcements we heard from the Chancellor on Wednesday suggested the Treasury is extremely worried about unemployment surging. Job vacancies are on the floor, which means those who lose their jobs may struggle to find alternative work.
The bonuses announced for companies that bring back furloughed staff, along with Government-backed job stints for young people, have been designed to relieve some of the pain, but the measures are far from a comprehensive jobs rescue package, as the furlough scheme starts to wind down from next month and companies report they will struggle to afford standing on their own. The only real antidote to mass unemployment is a thriving economy, driven by consumer confidence and open business.
Cue the Prime Minister’s shift in tone. We’re now getting almost daily announcements about layoffs and shop closures from businesses that rely heavily on custom from people going to work.
The longer people work from home, the more the businesses designed with them in mind (particularly in hospitality) grow increasingly unviable. And while some businesses have discovered new efficiencies and benefits from their employees working at home, others have just made do, finding their processes strained and normal operating procedures made significantly more difficult.
As things stand, the guidance on the government's website remains to work from home if possible, while the guidance around public transport also clashes with the Prime Minister's new advice. But his words leave little room for nuance: he thinks employees should be returning to work.
The question now is whether an official shift in guidance will follow.