Thursday 15 July 2021 9:31 am

Business groups blast government's back-to-work guidance for lack of clarity

Business leaders in the UK have slammed yesterday’s renewed government back-to-work guidance for its mixed messages that have “done little to dispel confusion” over returning to the office.

BEIS officials published new guidance yesterday – a day later than expected – that called for a “gradual return” to the office from 19 July, as the government’s work from home guidance is lifted.

The new advice for employers includes calls for workers to reduce the number of people they have contact with, the use of face masks in some situations and ventilation checks in offices.

But bosses have criticised the government’s approach for its “patchwork requirements”, leaving businesses in the dark about what legal status the guidance has, and concerned about vulnerability under health and safety legislation and insurance.

“Like everybody else, businesses across the country have been awaiting ‘freedom day’ with bated breath. But instead we have had a series of mixed messages and patchwork requirements from Government that have dampened that enthusiasm,” said Roger Barker, Policy Director at the Institute of Directors (IoD).

“Return to work or continue to stay at home. Throw away your masks or continue to wear them. Today’s long-awaited guidance from Government has done little to dispel that confusion,” Barker added.

Barker called for the government to publish best practice guidance for businesses to follow when developing their own policies, to “inspire confidence in businesses and the workforce that we can all return to work safely.”

So far, UK businesses have differed considerably in their planned worplace strategy. In the wake of the government update yesterday, Tui told its workers they only need to be in the office one day a month.

The UK’s largest travel company said it would offer “total flexibility” to staff, adding “work is something we do, not somewhere we go.”

But in the City, some firms are taking a more hardline approach. JP Morgan sent an internal memo to staff revealed yesterday that said it would lift its 50 per cent cap on staff capacity in its Canary Wharf office when pandemic restrictions are lifted next week.

Its UK approach is less hardline than in the US, however, where last month it sent a memo to all US staff “strongly urging” them to get a Covid vaccine before returning to offices. It also dangled the possibility of mandatory vaccination, a move already taken by Morgan Stanley in New York.

Bank of America has also told its UK staff it expects employees to be back at their desks by September, and is pushing for them to return when restrictions are lifted – provided they have had their first Covid-19 vaccine.

The new guidance comes after Chancellor Rishi Sunak urged Brits to return to the office, saying younger workers in particular would benefit from going back to workplaces.

Sunak said that working remotely and mostly through Zoom had been “not great” for those at the early stages of their careers.

“I think for young people, especially, that ability to be in your office, be in your workplace and learn from others more directly, is something that’s really important and I look forward to us slowly getting back to that,” he said.

But simultaneously last week, PM Boris Johnson said in his original announcement of the new rules that the government would take a hands-off approach to people getting back into the office.

Bosses have blasted the continued uncertainty over government policy, with one senior executive saying: “The government doesn’t know what it thinks about masks. How on earth are employees and employers meant to know? We need clarity.”

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, told The Times that the government was “abandoning workers and employers.”

“We all want the economy to unlock as soon as possible, but these new back-to-work safety guidelines, published without proper consultation with unions or employers just two full working days before restrictions end, are a recipe for chaos and rising infections,” she said.

Ministers have said it will now be up to employers to manage a return to the office, with the government only providing advice and guidance.

The Delta variant of Covid is surging across the country, with cases up by 26 per cent week-on-week, with the government’s advice reflecting this new wave.

Advice documents released yesterday said that “during this period of high prevalence, the government expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer”.

All employers are being advised to carry out “Covid risk assessments”, with companies with more than five employers being told to write out all details.

Guidance for offices calls for employers to “identify any poorly ventilated spaces and taking steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas”.

It also said employers should “encourage the use of face coverings by workers or customers in enclosed and crowded spaces” and “reduce the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ or ‘cohorting’”.

Sir Martin Sorrell, chairman of ad group S4 Capital, said: “We’re being encouraged to take things into our own hands, and that does make it difficult because people have their own standards.”