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Boris Johnson denies split with science chief over back-to-work push and says it’s ‘not for government’ to tell firms what to do

The Prime Minister unveiled the latest part of the Government’s lockdown easing-measures. (PA)

4 min read

Boris Johnson has denied a split with the Government’s chief scientific adviser on whether or not people should return to their places of work.

The Prime Minister said he “totally” agreed with Sir Patrick Vallance, after the top scientist told MPs on Thursday that there was "absolutely no reason" for companies to change their policy on working from home if it was not detrimental to business.

And Mr Johnson said it was “very much for companies” to decide whether or not their staff should travel in to offices as he urged employers to begin consulting staff on doing so from 1 August.

Ministers have in recent days signalled a shift in their messaging on working from home, amid fears that Britain’s economic recovery hinges on consumer spending in city and town centres.

But Sir Patrick told the Science and Technology Committee: “My view on this, and I think this is a view shared by [scientific advisory body] SAGE, is that we're still at a time when distancing measures are important.”

"Of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option, because it's easy to do."

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference to unveil the next stage of the Government's “road map” for easing coronavirus restrictions on Friday, Mr Johnson said: “I totally agree with Sir Patrick Vallance on what he’s saying.”

But he added: “Obviously it's not for government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their workforces in the office or not — that's very much for companies.

“And what we're saying now is that if employers think it'd be better, more productive for their employees to come into the office, and they can work in a safe way, in a Covid-secure way in the office, then there should be discussions between the employers and employees. And people should take a decision.”

The Prime Minister said: “That's what we want to see from August 1: discussions between employers and employees about how they think people can be most productive and if everybody thinks that it can be done safely. 

“If people think that the place of work is safe, then of course people should come in, if that is what the decision is — but it's not for the government to make that decision.”

However, Mr Johnson signalled that he wants government officials in Whitehall to lead the way with the back-to-work push, telling the press conference: “I certainly want to be seeing people coming back into the civil service here in London, where employers think it's time to come back and it can be done in a safe way.”

The PM said ultimate decisions on whether to bring the country's 400,000 civil servants back into workplaces would be down to individual line managers.

The move from Number 10 hands significant discretion to employers over whether or not staff —  who have been advised since March to work from home wherever possible — should be asked to go back in.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of HR body the CIPD, said consultation with staff would be "essential to ensure they have a say in how and when they return".

“It’s vital that organisations consider the physical safety and mental wellbeing of their people before returning them to the existing workplace," he said.

"They should first consider if they can meet three conditions: is it essential for them to be in the workplace to do their job, is it sufficiently safe and is it mutually agreed with workers.

"Even with those measures in place the return to workplaces must still  be  gradual so that social distancing can be maintained."

But the Government’s critics leapt on the latest move from the PM, which came alongside a promised further easing of lockdown measures from August 1 and a potential lifting of some social distancing measures later in the year.

Liberal Democrat acting leader Ed Davey said: “While we all want life to get back to normal as soon as possible, people remain rightly worried about coronavirus. 

“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.”


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