Businesses should return to home working where possible, says prime minister

Government reveals an abrupt U-turn on advice to reopen offices in parliamentary address on stemming an increase in Covid cases

Businesses should return to home working where possible, says prime minister

The prime minister has confirmed that all workers in England who are able to work from home will once again be asked to do so in light of the increased number of coronavirus cases over the last few weeks.

Addressing parliament today (22 September), Boris Johnson said: “We are once again asking office workers to work from home where possible,” but stressed this was “by no means a return to the full lockdown” introduced in March.

He added that workers who were unable to work from home – including those in the construction sector – would still be encouraged to go to work, as long as their workplace was Covid-secure. The prime minister also said there was still no need for vulnerable individuals to continue shielding apart from in areas where there were local lockdowns.

The announcement marks an abrupt U-turn from earlier advice urging office workers to return to the workplace. In July, Johnson said people should “start to go back to work now if [they] can”, and in the last month the government has encouraged workers to return to offices, saying that many workplaces were now “Covid secure”.

However, there has been a spike in infections in the UK in the last few weeks. On Monday (21 September), a further 4,368 daily cases were reported in the UK, up from 3,899. This brought the total number of people with a lab-confirmed positive coronavirus test to 398,625.

Yesterday, the government’s scientific adviser and chief medical officer, professor Chris Whitty, warned there could be 50,000 new coronavirus cases a day by mid-October and a further 200-plus deaths a day by mid-November if action was not taken to slow the spread of the virus.

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Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, stressed the figures given were not a prediction, but added: "At the moment, we think the epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days.

“The challenge, therefore, is to make sure the doubling time does not stay at seven days,” Vallance said. “That requires speed, it requires action and it requires enough in order to be able to bring that down.”

The UK’s coronavirus alert level has been upgraded from three to four, meaning the risk of transmission is “high or rising exponentially”. 

Other restrictions put in place to reduce social mixing and slow the spread of the virus include a 10pm closing time for pubs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality venues in England from Thursday (24 September).

Johnson also said that under the new rules staff in the retail sector will be required to wear masks at work, pubs, bars and restaurants would be restricted to table service or take-aways and all staff and customers in the hospitality sector will be required to wear masks at all times apart from customers when seated.

Johnson said any businesses found breaking the new rules would face fines and possible closure if they persist, and that these new rules could be in place for around six months. Stricter measures could still be implemented if the rate of infections continue to rise.

In an interview with Sky News, Michale Gove, minister for the Cabinet Office, described the latest changes in restrictions as a “shift in emphasis” and unavoidable as coronavirus infection rates continued to rise. “It’s important to stress that there are many roles which can’t be performed from home… where we recognise that that’s simply impossible,” Gove said.

“We need to balance, obviously, the need to ensure that people can continue to work and, critically, continue to go to school against taking steps to try to reduce the virus,” he said.

Additionally, Gove told BBC Breakfast this morning that trials of spectators at sporting events would be “paused” until the rate of Covid infections was brought down.

However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said a second national lockdown would be a “sign of government failure” to stamp down the infection rate, “not an act of God”.

Speaking at the virtual Labour Party conference, he added: “It [a second nationwide lockdown] would take an immense toll on people's physical and mental health and on the economy. We need a national effort to prevent a national lockdown.”