UK to Office Workers: 'Go Back To Work Or Risk Losing Your Job'

Are governments just giving up on dealing with Covid-19?

Lloyds' and the Cheesegrater
Lloyds' and the Cheesegrater look empty.

 Ollie Millington/ Getty Images

Most British office workers, like those in North America, were told to work from home in the spring to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But now the British government is saying enough is enough, time to get back to work. The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, says it's safe now.

“What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back to work and your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure that it is coronavirus-safe to work and you will see some changes if you haven’t been in for a bit as a result.”

He continued by touting the benefits of offices.

“I think there’s a limit, just in human terms, to remote working. And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress. So I think common sense will prevail between employers and employees.”
Telegraph Headline
Telegraph headline.  Telegraph Screen Shot

According to Heather Stewart in the Guardian, the government denied that they were threatening workers, and took issue with the Daily Telegraph, saying “This is a deeply irresponsible headline with no truth behind it. Our priority has always and will always be protecting people’s jobs.”

But others think that the government cares more about the fact that sandwich chain Pret a Manger laid off 2,900 workers than they do about the coronavirus. According to the Financial Times, "business leaders have warned that the low footfall in city centres is damaging businesses such as retailers, restaurants and pubs." Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI [Confederation of British Industry] writes in the Daily Mail:

The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy. They support thousands of local firms, from drycleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business. The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.

Also in the Daily Mail, a columnist (who admits to having been working from home for 30 years) says "Millions of people WFH is a Fool’s Paradise. It can’t last much longer, but unless business gets back to normal sooner rather than later, the consequences will be catastrophic."

Is Everyone Just Giving Up On Dealing With Covid-19?

Trump speech
Trump speech.  Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images

Conditions haven't changed in the UK or in the United States in ways that suddenly make it safe to go back to work, give up on keeping your distances, or not wear masks.

But at the end of the Republican convention, 1,500 people gathered with few masks and without any social distancing. When asked about this, a White House official responded:

Between Boris in Britain and Trump in the USA it certainly looks like conservative, business-friendly governments have given up on trying to control Covid-19, probably on the assumption that the most productive and healthy workers will be fine, and who cares about their parents who don't contribute anymore. As Calvin Coolidge noted, the business of America is business.

Why Is This on Treehugger?

We have promoted working from home for at least a decade, believing it will lead to cleaner air, lower CO2 emissions, less congestion, and in the end, healthier cities. Pret a Manger may be in trouble, along with a few big real estate developers, but nobody should be forced to go back to the office, ever.