‘Shake up the rules’ to get work­ers back in the of­fice

Un­der cur­rent guide­lines some com­pa­nies can only use one in five desks, lead­ing bosses tell min­is­ter

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - By Gor­don Rayner

BUSI­NESS lead­ers have told the Gov­ern­ment to change its guide­lines on Covid se­cu­rity af­ter com­plain­ing that only one in five desks can be used in some of­fices.

Alok Sharma, the Busi­ness Sec­re­tary, met the bosses of six ma­jor em­ploy­ers yes­ter­day where he was told more must be done to get peo­ple back into the work­place.

It came as new fig­ures showed foot­fall in high streets in Au­gust re­mained 42pc down on last year de­spite the suc­cess of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and dis­count­ing in shops.

Re­tail­ers said home work­ing was hav­ing a “dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect” on high streets and blamed the Gov­ern­ment for fail­ing to change its “work from home if you can” mes­sage.

Mean­while, Boris John­son’s drive to get peo­ple back to the of­fice was thrown into con­fu­sion af­ter Down­ing Street in­sisted there had “never been a back to work cam­paign”.

Mr Sharma told busi­ness lead­ers he was in “lis­ten­ing mode” when he held a vir­tual meet­ing with them to dis­cuss what more the Gov­ern­ment could do to get peo­ple back to their work­places.

Se­nior ex­ec­u­tives from Rolls-Royce, NatWest, Unilever, Bri­tish Land, EY and the law firm Den­tons were among those on the call, where they de­tailed a se­ries of ob­sta­cles in the way of peo­ple get­ting back to the of­fice.

One source close to the dis­cus­sions said: “The Gov­ern­ment’s guid­ance on so­cial dis­tanc­ing in the work­place means some small of­fices can only get a fifth of their desks back in use.

“There are a lot of other prob­lems in­clud­ing peo­ple’s fears about us­ing pub­lic trans­port, a lack of child­care and in­suf­fi­cient test­ing and trac­ing. All of these things are get­ting in the way.”

The Con­fed­er­a­tion of Bri­tish In­dus­try, whose head has warned of “ghost towns” re­sult­ing from home work­ing, the Bri­tish Cham­bers of Com­merce, the In­sti­tute of Direc­tors and the Fed­er­a­tion of Small Busi­nesses also took part in the dis­cus­sion with Mr Sharma.

The Gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent guid­ance states that work­ers should be kept two me­tres apart, or 1m “with risk mit­i­ga­tion” where this is not pos­si­ble.

If work sta­tions can­not be moved 2m apart, work­ers should sit side by side or back to back, with screens sep­a­rat­ing them from each other. So-called “hot­de­sk­ing” should be avoided, un­less desks and equip­ment can be sani­tised in between dif­fer­ent users.

The Gov­ern­ment is not, so far, rec­om­mend­ing the use of face cov­er­ings in of­fices, though other coun­tries in­clud­ing France have made masks manda­tory in most work­places.

Mr John­son pub­licly stated in early July that peo­ple should go back to their work­places if they could, but the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment ad­vice has never caught up with the Prime Min­is­ter.

Yes­ter­day, The Daily Tele­graph re­vealed that a back to work ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign, which had been due to launch to­day, had been post­poned un­til at least next week fol­low­ing dis­agree­ments in gov­ern­ment about the way for­ward.

Yes­ter­day, the Prime Min­is­ter’s of­fi­cial spokesman added to the con­fu­sion by say­ing “there has never been a back to work cam­paign”, de­scrib­ing the de­layed news­pa­per cam­paign as just the lat­est phase in an on­go­ing pub­lic in­for­ma­tion ser­vice.

The spokesman said there would be con­tent on so­cial me­dia over the week­end di­rect­ing busi­nesses to the lat­est gov­ern­ment guide­lines, fol­lowed at some point by news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ments en­cour­ag­ing the pub­lic to go back to work.

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