Businesses could be allowed to fully reopen their offices in two weeks' time, the prime minister has said, as he outlined his plans to lift the last of the current Covid restrictions.
However, experts have called on businesses not to “rush” back to their pre-Covid ways of working, urging them to work with employees to make sure they feel safe returning to the workplace.
In a press conference yesterday (5 July) to outline the final part of of the government’s roadmap to ending restrictions, Boris Johnson said from 19 July the rules on social distancing and guidance on working from home where possible would end – subject to a final review next week.
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“It will no longer be necessary for the government to instruct people to work from home, so employers will be able to start planning a safe return to the workplace,” Johnson said.
The government will also end the cap on the number of people allowed to meet inside and lift the legal obligation to wear masks, instead issuing guidance suggesting times when individuals “might choose to” cover their faces.
Addressing parliament at the same time, Sajid Javid, the new health secretary, confirmed that the government was planning to remove legal requirements on how businesses operate.
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“Capacity caps will all be lifted, and there will no longer be a requirement to offer table service [in hospitality venues]”, he said, adding that “all businesses forced to close their doors because of the pandemic will be able to open them once again.”
Both Javid and Johnson also said that Covid-status certification – also known as vaccine or immunity passports – would not be made mandatory for entering venues or events.
However, businesses would be free to use certification at their own discretion and an NHS Covid Pass would be created for this purpose.
The government had originally planned to lift the last of the coronavirus restrictions last month, however postponed the reopening because of a rise in the number of cases caused by the new Delta variant of the virus.
However, the government is now confident the rollout of the vaccine has meant that hospital admissions and Covid deaths remain low despite the increase in cases.
“We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal?” said Johnson.
However, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, advised businesses not to “rush to simply revert to how they used to work” now we have experience and evidence that the workplace can be run differently.
“Employers should be trying to understand and support individuals’ preferences over more flexible working arrangements where possible, balanced with meeting the needs of the business,” Cheese said, urging that firms consult with and agree working arrangements with employees to ensure they have confidence that their office is safe.
He added that not everyone was able to work from home, so organisations needed to look at different types of working arrangements to avoid a two-tier workforce where home and hybrid workers have flexibility and others do not.
Renée Clarke, director of Work Well Hub, also warned that some employees might be anxious about returning to the office, suggesting employers conduct risk assessments to reduce the risks to mental and physical health.
Clarke also suggested employers treat the return to work process as they would if someone were returning from sickness absence. “Have a conversation about how individuals are feeling about their return to work and ask if there is anything they can do to make the process easier”, she explained. “Communication is key.”
It was also important employers understand that some employees may still wish to keep a distance and wear a mask despite the rule changes, Clarke said. “Asking employees what they prefer is really important, each person will feel different and it is important to respect this”, she highlighted.