Now is not the time for unnecessary trips to the office
Only when it has got its own house in order is the Government entitled to give advice on the home/workplace balance, says the British Safety Council | Credit: PA Images
British Safety Council calls on Government not to pressurise employers to get workers back into the office.
If people can work from home, they should have the choice to work from home: for the sake of people’s health, wellbeing and the economy.
The Government has launched a campaign to encourage people to go back to their workplaces.
Its message will be that workplaces are safe and that employers should reassure staff it is safe to return by highlighting measures taken to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
This new initiative comes as most schools in England and Wales reopen, relieving thousands of workers from childcare duties and in the face of the damage being done to city centres as people work from home.
Homeworking is still a popular choice.
Between 27 July and 9 August, 39% of the workforce of businesses still trading was working remotely, according to the Office for National Statistics. Some surveys, albeit early, have indicated that people are happy to work from home and that productivity has, if anything, improved. In one survey, nine out of 10 people in the UK who have worked from home during lockdown want to continue doing so.
From the health perspective, as well as reduced contact at work, home working reduces potential exposure to the virus while travelling to and from work.
In July, Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, made the case that given the spread of the virus is dependent on contact, working from home remains an important option and there was no need to change the advice.
It should not be for Government to tell employers or workers what arrangements they should make.
The British Safety Council is concerned ‘about this new Government messaging on two levels.
The first is that Government should not be putting pressure on employers and workers. Questions of returning to work, of ongoing flexibility and the measures put in place to enable social distancing at work are best dealt with through a dialogue between employers and workers. It is really their choice and discretion about when is the right time to return to the workplace.
For some, with limited space, distractions like noise and/or a desire for contact with colleagues that balance may mean coming back to the office. For others where, for example, ‘pinch points’ such as around lifts predominate or where long commutes mean high levels of prolonged contact, some employers and workers may prefer to continue with home-working arrangements.
In both cases it should not be for Government to tell employers or workers what arrangements they should make.
Our second concern is that a blanket description of workplaces as ‘safe’ from the risks presented by Covid is simply not based on the evidence.
With the Health and Safety Executive and Local Authority capacity for large-scale inspections severely cut during years of austerity, we cannot say with any certainty that workplaces are safe from Covid. For example, by the end of 2019, there has been over the last ten years a 94 per cent drop in proactive health and safety inspections by Local Authorities; where prosecutions for health and safety breaches have dropped by 25 per cent and where health and safety enforcement notices issued by HSE and Local Authorities fell by 25 per cent
The Government needs to do two things: fund the HSE so that it can carry out widespread health checks on workplaces, as well as ensure HSE inspects any workplace that is involved in a Covid hot-spot, and concentrate on getting the country on track to deal with Covid.
This means concentrating on track and trace to operate effectively, providing PPE to health and care workers, tracing all Covid contacts, making sure workplaces are legally compliant, providing consistent advice to schools and properly funding self-isolation.
Only when it has got its own house in order is the Government entitled to give advice on the home/workplace balance.