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Boris Johnson accused of ‘threatening’ workers back to offices without science to back up plan

Independent Sage calls for inspections and certification system to make workplaces safe as government accused of ‘abdicating responsibility’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Friday 28 August 2020 15:40 BST
Grant Shapps: It is now safe to start returning to work

The government has been accused of “abdicating responsibility” for making workplaces safe before urging people back to offices, ahead of the launch of a publicity campaign aimed at reducing homeworking.

Labour said the plan “beggars belief” and urged ministers to drop it, while the Independent Sage group of scientific advisors called on Friday for a national system of inspections to make sure even the worst employers are complying with social distancing best practice to keep workers safe.

The independent expert group, set up amid concerns about political interference in the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said workplaces should have to be certified before employees could return, and that unannounced inspections should be introduced to ensure they continue to follow the rules.

They also criticised the timing of the official push back to offices, which coincides with the mass return of pupils and students to school and universities – as well as a rise in daily Covid cases, with the UK reporting its highest daily number of new coronavirus cases since 12 June on Thursday, with 1,522 confirmed positive results.

The chair of the government’s own Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) has also expressed scepticism over plans to pressure employees to stop homeworking, saying it could penalise disabled and vulnerable people.

The government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said last month that the UK had probably reached the limit of what could be opened up safely and that some things might have to close – but the government is now pushing for office workers to stop working from home, in an apparent bid to shore up businesses that rely on their trade.

Trade unions also warned on Friday that lack of childcare would be a major barrier to many people returning to work, calling on ministers to “wake up” to the unfolding crisis. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, accused the government of running a “scare campaign” instead of providing real assistance.

“Throughout this crisis millions of people have worked extremely hard from home, often in cramped bedrooms with limited equipment or balancing work with childcare,” she said.

“Many now want a better balance of office and home-based working. But before this can happen, ministers must take responsibility for guaranteeing workers’ safety with a fast and reliable test and trace system, and better enforcement of transport safety and workplace risk assessments.

“Ministers also need to wake up to the UK’s childcare crisis. Many working parents have lost all their childcare. Until proper support is provided, they have no choice but to keep balancing work and care by working at home. And many disabled workers can only safely undertake their roles at home. Increased childcare investment and strengthened rights to flexible working are vital to protect these workers’ jobs.”

“It’s extremely concerning the way the prime minister has presented this argument,” said Dr Zubaida Haque, the director of the Runnymede Trust, who sits on the Independent Sage group.

“Threatening people to go back to work without ensuring that workplaces are safe is not the way to proceed. The only way the public can be confident to go back to work is if they know it’s safe, and the government needs to do much more to make it safe.”

Professor Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at St Andrew’s University who also sits on the group, said: “We have seen how poor working conditions and pressure on employees to come to work when unwell have contributed to outbreaks of infection which have then affected whole communities.

“It is quite clear that rigorous procedures to ensure workplace safety must be central to any overall pandemic strategy. And yet the government has abdicated responsibility for this, simply telling employers to make workplaces safe but without any support or procedures to make sure this happens. You simply can’t fight Covid-19 on a wish and a prayer.”

Calling for an inspections and certifications system, Professor Reicher added that “most employers are responsible and would be putting mitigations in place”. But he said that it was “not good enough that most employers are doing this, we need all employers to be doing this, even the bad employers”.

Speaking at a briefing to journalists on Friday he warned that cuts “over the last decade” to the Health and Safety Inspectorate have resulted in the system being “largely dismantled in this country, or severely cut down by 50 per cent”. He noted that there were just 390 health and safety inspectors for the whole country, on top of councils’ capacity.

In general this is very much a situation where we should wait and see

Professor Susan Michie, UCL

Professor Susan Michie, who specialises in health psychology at University College London, said there was “concern about the timing about encouraging a return to work of those people who don’t need to” at the same time as schools and universities.

“In general this is very much a situation where we should wait and see, given the priority that everybody’s got for schools – see how that goes, see how university term goes, and if the transmission rate hasn’t started to climb and is at a low level, then we can think about people going back to work,” she said.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said there should be “no question of people’s jobs being vulnerable if they do not return to the office”.

Interim commission chair Caroline Waters said: “The pandemic has seen many employers rip up the red tape and scale up their flexible working practices.

“Having been forced out of offices and to adapt to working from home overnight, many employers have seen the benefits of flexible working and have said they will continue with a more flexible approach beyond the pandemic.

“This has presented an opportunity to drive up flexibility for everyone, unlocking more career opportunities for disabled people and helping people to balance the complexity of working from home with caring responsibilities and family life.

“Having seen how it is possible to work flexibly and retain productivity, we cannot backtrack now. Reopening offices does not need to mean the end of homeworking and there should be no question of people’s jobs being vulnerable if they do not return to the office.”

The row over whether home working should continue comes as a YouGov poll shows the public largely support a continuation of the new arrangements since the pandemic, with 47 per cent saying people should not be pressured to return to the office and 31 per cent saying they should.

Among the country’s demographics, only people of pension age, 65 years and older, support sending workers back out when they could simply work from home – by 44 per cent to 35 per cent.

A separate study by academics at Cardiff University and the University of Southampton found that nine out of ten people in the UK who have worked from home during lockdown want to continue doing so.

That study found that working from home as risen from 6 per cent of employees before the start of the pandemic to 43 per cent in April. The research found that productivity was broadly stable despite the change. The study questioned a representative sample of 6,000-7,000 workers.

Four in ten (41 per cent) say working from home has made no difference to how much work they have got done, while roughly equal parts said they had got more work done or less work done (29 per cent and 30 per cent respectively).

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