Boris Johnson laid out a plan for a “significant return to normality” by Christmas yesterday as he announced that guidelines would be eased so that firms could bring employees back to the workplace.
At a No 10 press conference, the prime minister said that from 1 August companies would have discretion to bring staff back to the office, in a move that would “give people hope and give businesses confidence”.
The move came despite warnings from his scientific advisers appeared to cast doubt on the prime minister’s suggestion of a significant return to normality.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty told a House of Lords committee: “Distancing remains an important part of this mix and how it is interpreted in different environments has evolved, but it has not gone away. [It] needs to continue for a long period of time.”
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, told the same comittee that if the virus comes back in a second wave “then clearly we remain as a population exposed to this. And therefore the measures of reducing contact to reduce spread, the sorts of social distancing measures that we’ve talked about, and the hygiene measures that go along with that, will be necessary.
Mr Johnson stressed that changes were ultimately a decision for politicians, who must also weigh up the threat to the economy of continued working from home.
“The chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer give us advice, which we of course take very very seriously, but in the end decisions are taken by the elected politicians,” he said. “We have to weigh the advice we get and I don’t think that our wonderful scientific and medical advisers would want to take those decisions for us.”
The prime minister told his Downing Street press conference: “It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest – possibly in time for Christmas”.
But he stressed that all the planned changes were conditional on people continuing to observe measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.
“It is contingent on every one of us staying alert and acting responsibly,” said Mr Johnson. “It relies on our continued success in controlling the virus. And we will not proceed if doing so risks a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.”
The prime minister also said he was making clear that from Friday he was lifting advice to avoid public transport, while encouraging people to use alternative means of getting around where possible.
Mr Johnson also announced plans to pilot the return of live indoor concerts and allow the return of crowds to sporting events by the autumn.
He said local authorities were being given new powers from Saturday to close premises and public spaces and cancel events in the case of a new coronavirus flare-up.
New regulations will next week give government ministers wider powers to stop people moving in or out of an area, to shut down entire sectors and restrict transport movements in the event of local outbreaks.
Setting out the changes to advice from 1 August, Mr Johnson said: “Instead of government telling people to work from home, we’re going to give employers more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.
“That could mean, of course, continuing to work from home – which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees – or it could mean making workplaces safe by following Covid-secure guidelines.
“Whatever employers decide they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe. As we reopen our society, it’s right that we give employers more discretion, or continue to ensure that employees are kept safe.”
Setting out the gradual relaxation of lockdown restrictions planned for the months ahead, Mr Johnson announced the return from 1 August of:
* Bowling, skating rinks and casinos – but not nightclubs and soft play areas
* Close-contact services in beauty salons
* Indoor performances with live audiences, subject to the success of pilots
* Pilots of larger gatherings in sports stadiums, with a view to wider reopening in the autumn
* Wedding receptions for up to 30 people
He said he intended to bring sporting audiences back and reopen conference centres from October.
And he said that “by November at the earliest, if we can continue to make progress in our struggle against the virus” it might be possible to move away from social distancing measures including the one metre-plus rule currently in force.
“Throughout this period, we will look to allow more close contact between friends and family when we can,” said the PM.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has warned the government should not encourage people to return to their workplaces if it means overcrowding the city’s Tube system, as was seen at the start of the pandemic.
“I’d ask employers to make sure start and finish times are staggered to avoid the rush hour,” said Mr Khan.
“But we’ve also got to make sure that places of work have the adaptations to make sure they’re safe – hand sanitisers being available, social distancing measures being in place, there being proper signage.
“It’s really important that we don’t have a return to work that leads to a second wave.”
Acting leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey said the PM’s plans were “utterly reckless”.
“While we all want life to get back to normal as soon as possible, people remain rightly worried about coronavirus,” said Mr Davey. “The prime minister’s plan to change current guidance for working at home and public transport use is utterly reckless and flies in the face of experts, including the UK’s chief scientific adviser.
“With government testing and tracing plans in an unholy mess, it is deeply irresponsible to throw caution to the wind like this. Ministers are passing the buck and, without protections, they have opened the door to serious disputes between employees and employers.”
Unions were also quick to criticise the move with John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB union, saying: “The prime minister has once again shown a failure of leadership in the face of this pandemic. Passing the responsibility of keeping the people safe to employers and local authorities is confusing and dangerous.
“With fears of a second spike looming, bewildering advice, and a desperately underfunded health service – the prime minister’s talk of returning to normality by Christmas just seems phoney.”
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, accused the government of “passing the buck on a big decision to employers”.
“We all want to get the economy up and running as quickly as possible. Returns to workplaces must happen in a phased and safe way,” Ms O’Grady said.
“Getting back to work safely requires a functioning NHS Test and Trace system. Yet progress on test and trace is still patchy, and the government is still refusing to support workers who have to self-isolate by raising statutory sick pay from just £95 per week to a rate people can live on.”