Monday’s Downing Street press conference confirmed the already much-trailed news as prime minister Boris Johnson announced that plans to lift the remainder of restrictions in England will go ahead on 19 July.
As part of the measures, Mr Johnson will be removing the government instruction to work from home. He asked those working from home to return to the office “where you can”, while urging the public to exercise “extreme caution” and to take “personal responsibility”.
The statement marks a slight U-turn from a previous announcement on 5 July, when Mr Johnson said it will “no longer be necessary for the government to instruct people to work from home” after the so-called Freedom Day.
The movement back to a slightly more cautious approach has earned criticism from some trade unions, which rebuked it as unclear and argued that it “amounts to the government washing its hands of its responsibility to ensure workplace safety”.
Ahead of the lifting of restrictions, here’s everything you need to know about the potential return to the office.
What is the government’s latest advice?
Boris Johnson has slightly diverted from his previous statement, telling the public that the government will be removing its instruction to work from home “where possible” but this doesn’t mean everyone back to the office on Monday.
“We don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desk as one from Monday [19 July],” Mr Johnson said on 12 July, adding that he expects to see a “gradual” return to the workplace over the rest of the summer.
Urging the public to exercise “common sense” and “personal responsibility”, he said the government is currently working on guidance for businesses as they bring people back into the office.
His statement is in line with comments made by the newly appointed health secretary, Sajid Javid, who told the Commons on Monday that “everyone should return to work gradually if they are working from home”.
Why has the government advice changed?
The change in tactic, from bringing everyone back to the office to a more gradual return, comes after scientists warned that a rush back to workplaces could see a surge in transmission.
A further 34,471 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were announced in the UK on Monday, the highest figure since January. There have been 228,189 cases in the last seven days, a week-on-week increase of 28 per cent.
Speaking to Times Radio, Dr Susan Hopkins, an epidemiologist consultant in infectious diseases and microbiology at Public Health England, said that while the government is “very keen” to get people back in the office, she believes the return to the workplace “needs to be very cautiously implemented” over four to six weeks to keep transmission down.
“If you are able to do your business effectively from home then I think over the next four to six weeks, with a rise in cases, we should try our best to do that. Then we should continue to look and see and have a cautious return to the office over the coming weeks once we start to see a decline in the number of cases,” she said.
During Monday’s press conference, professor Chris Whitty said an “exit wave” of Covid-19 cases is somewhat inevitable as restrictions lift. “There is extremely wide agreement that whenever we go through the next step, there is going to be what’s called an exit wave,” he said.
In alignment with the government’s approach to a “gradual” return, he advised: “The slower we take it, the fewer people will have Covid-19, the smaller the peak will be, and the smaller the number of people who go into hospital and die.”
Does it make a difference if you’ve had both vaccines?
As of Sunday, 11 July, 34,872,131 people in the UK have received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. Despite the huge vaccination effort, cases are on the rise.
In a statement on 5 July, Mr Johnson said scientific evidence has clearly demonstrated that vaccines “have helped break the link between disease and death”, but that the risks associated with Covid-19, regardless of whether you have been vaccinated, are “far from eliminated”.
As per the NHS, both doses of the vaccine will “reduce your risk of getting seriously ill or dying from Covid-19” and reduce the transmission of the virus. But you can still transmit the virus and can still get unwell - although the risk of serious illness and death is reduced.
How have trade unions responded?
The latest announcement has been criticised by trade unions, calling for a clearer outline of how safe the return to the workplace is for their members.
Gary Smith, the general secretary of GMB, said the union supports a move to “get back to normal”, but not at the cost of putting lives at risk.
“It’s very easy for the prime minister to say we should take ‘personal responsibility’ when his government has prioritised politics over science throughout this pandemic,” he said.
“Of course we all want to get back to normal, but not at the cost of putting lives at risk – and many of them will be the workers who risked everything to keep the country moving throughout the pandemic.”
Trades Union Congress, which represents 48 unions across England and Wales, said Mr Johnson’s instructions will confuse employers and called for “comprehensive and clear guidance”.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to safety at work as restrictions go. Every employer is legally required to make sure their workers can work safely,” TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady told The Independent.
“That’s why ministers must produce comprehensive and clear guidance, sector-by-sector – and consult on it with unions and employers upfront.
“Replacing proper guidance with vague exhortations to employers to do the right thing will result in confusion – and rising infections.”
What is a Covid-19 secure workplace?
As per the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), businesses should carry out risk assessments of their workplaces before employees return to the office.
Under current guidelines, employees have been asked to socially distance by keeping two metres apart where possible and wear face masks.
It is expected that these restrictions will not necessarily apply after 19 July, when social distancing measures and the mask mandate in public spaces is lifted.
During Monday’s conference, chief scientific adviser sir Patrick Vallance said businesses should ensure that “ventilation gets a priority”.
The government has also published 14 guides on its website detailing how employers can go about making their workplaces “Covid-secure”.
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