Britons urged to return to office after reports workers from home ‘more vulnerable to sackings’

“It is now safe to go back” to work, a cabinet minister has told Sky News as the government prepares a push to get people to return to the office.

In new adverts next week, government messages will emphasise the benefits of employees returning to workplaces, as well as encouraging businesses to make their offices COVID-secure.

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It comes after the UK reported its highest daily number of new coronavirus cases since 12 June, with 1,522 people receiving a laboratory-confirmed positive COVID-19 test on Thursday.

A man walks through a deserted Bank junction in the City of London as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Image: There are warnings UK cities will be left as ‘ghost towns’

Speaking to Sky News on Friday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back.

“Your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure it is coronavirus-safe to work.

“You will see some changes, if you haven’t been in for a bit, as a result.”

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Nearly half of workers did some work from home during the coronavirus lockdown.

But Mr Shapps said there was a “limit” to the use of video-conferencing software, such as Zoom, in being able to get “some types of work done”.

“Clearly there are things you can’t just do remotely, and a lot of those people have carried on working,” he added.

“But for the rest of us, also, you just miss out on that human spark when you’re not with people.

“You will find the office has been reorganised into a coronavirus-avoidance friendly environment and probably a few changes as a result.”

Labour have called on the government to condemn reports that those who continue to work from home could be more vulnerable to being sacked.

The Daily Telegraph quoted a government source as describing working from home as “not the benign option it seems”.

“Suddenly the word ‘restructure’ is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position,” the source was quoted as adding.

Downing Street has distanced itself from those reports and Mr Shapps called for “common sense” between employers and employees on the return to workplaces.

“We’re absolutely clear that employers and employees need to work together to resolve this,” he said.

“There are, of course, a whole host of employee protections in place.

“If employees have concerns about the workplace, for example, the Health and Safety Executive, the local authority, will be the right places to go.

“The vast majority of employers just want to get their businesses back up and running, they want to do the right thing.”

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The new adverts will be in a similar format to previous government information campaigns such as the “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” media push.

The move represents a bolstering of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “back to work” message and puts Downing Street at odds with devolved governments around the UK.

In guidance published earlier this week, the Scottish government said that remote working “should remain the default position for those who can”.

A Welsh government spokesperson said: “In Wales, we continue to advise people to work from home where possible.

“We recognise, however, that there will be situations where there is a pressing organisational need for employers to ask staff to return to an office or where employees feel working from home is impairing their well-being.

“Employers are under a duty to take all reasonable measures to minimise the spread of coronavirus, which will include ensuring they do not require staff to return to workplaces in the absence of a clearly demonstrated business need.”

A quiet Waterloo Bridge in London
Image: The government abandoned its ‘work from home’ guidance on 1 August but areas in London remain quiet

Figures compiled for Sky News revealed that worker footfall in Britain’s cities was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels in the first two weeks of August.

Office attendance flatlined despite the government abandoning its “work from home” guidance on 1 August and Mr Johnson personally urging staff to return.

A survey of businesses by the Office for National Statistics showed that, between 27 July to 9 August, 42% were working at their normal place of work.

This compared to 39% working remotely instead of at their normal place of work.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, has warned the UK’s city centres will continue to be “ghost towns” without the return of workers to offices.

“The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,” she said.

“They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people.

“And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.”

Dame Carolyn is calling for a “hybrid” approach of encouraging both home working and office working to “get the best of both worlds”.

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