'Gradual return to work' expected over summer

A 'gradual return to work over the summer' is expected rather than a rush back to the office en masse, the prime minister said as he confirmed that all legal Covid-19 restrictions will end on 19 July.

In a press conference yesterday evening (12 July) Boris Johnson said that the instruction to work from home where possible will be removed next week, but he did not expect the whole country to "return to their desk as one" from Monday.

The government will publish guidance for businesses around a gradual return to workplaces, he said.

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said it was "absolutely right" to recommend a gradual return to offices for those who have been working from home.

"There are still widespread anxieties and recognition the pandemic is not over, particularly as infection rates are increasing. The majority of people who have been working from home have been able to do so successfully for the last 16 months, so a slow, cautious return to workplaces is the right approach at this time," said Cheese.

"Employers have a fundamental ethical and legal duty of care to their workers. This means continuing to consult staff and taking steps to protect all workers from the risk of Covid-19. It's also important that employers support good mental wellbeing by ensuring line managers provide flexibility, support and understanding where people have concerns."

Cheese said organisations should "learn from the pandemic" and provide more flexible ways of working going forward.

"Employers and managers should work with their staff to create more opportunities for hybrid working and other forms of flexible working which can have a positive impact on employee health and wellbeing, inclusion and productivity," he said.

A further 34,471 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK were announced on Monday, a level not seen since January. Despite the rising infection rate, Johnson said it was the right time to proceed with step 4 of the government's roadmap out of lockdown, but it was "vital to proceed with caution".

"I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough… this pandemic is not over," the prime minister said. "We cannot simply revert instantly to life as it was before Covid."

The latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics show that one in 160 people in England have Covid-19.

By 19 July, around two-thirds of adults are expected to have received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and all adults would have been offered a first dose. All adults will have been offered a second dose by mid-September.

Rules around face masks and social distancing will be removed on 19 July, but people will be expected to wear them based on their own judgment of the risks.

However, it has been recommended that people wear face coverings in crowded spaces and enclosed spaces such as public transport, and when mixing with people they don't normally meet.

Johnson said that there was a significant difference between not wearing a mask while alone on a station platform and within a crowded tube carriage, for instance.

Although people who test positive for Covid-19 or come into contact with positive cases identified by NHS Test and Trace will still be legally required to self-isolate, there will be an isolation exemption for adults who have received both jabs from 16 August and for under 18s who have been in contact with a positive case.

Quarantine rules will remain for those travelling from a red list country, and for amber list countries unless they have received both jabs.

This guidance is set to be reviewed in September and lockdown restrictions will be under review until 2022.

Johnson said: "We also know if we were to now delay this fourth step, for instance to September, or later, then we would be reopening as the weather gets colder and as the virus acquires a greater natural advantage and when schools are back.

"We think now is the right moment to proceed when we have the natural firebreak of the school holidays in the next few days."

The chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, Neil Carberry, said businesses were looking forward to opening fully but heath and safety needed to be high on their agenda.

"The remaining risk of the virus to staff and customers is on all our minds. Companies need clarity from government on how to remain compliant with health and safety law during this final stage of unlocking, so that they can keep their staff and customers safe as they re-open," he said.

Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health encouraged employers to continue with preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of Covid-19 transmission.

He said: "With Covid risks, this might include a reasonable request for people to continue wearing face masks and observe social distancing measures. Employers might wish to emulate other socially conscious organisations by asking workers to test themselves regularly, including supplying them with lateral flow test kits."

He urged organisations not to forget about mental health, with the possibility that staff may be "deeply concerned" about returning to the office.

"We advocate that open and non-stigmatised conversations are proactively arranged by line managers as part of a strong overall mental health and wellbeing strategy," said Spencer. "Organisations need to be safe from Covid and safe from the mental health consequences of this pandemic and the impact it has on people's lives."