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Boris Johnson prepares major back-to-work push as Labour say ministers ‘threatening people during a pandemic’

The Prime Minister is expected to ramp up the Government’s calls for a return to the office. (PA)

4 min read

Boris Johnson is preparing a major push to get Britain back in the office from next week.

Employers whose staff have been working from home since the start of lockdown in March will be asked to highlight measures they have taken to protect workplaces from Covid-19.

And ministers are reportedly warning that those who continue to work from home will be more “vulnerable” to losing their jobs.

But Labour accused the Prime Minister of “threatening people” during a pandemic.

According to The Telegraph, the publicity campaign will get underway next week, making the “emotional case” for returning to work by highlighting the benefits to people’s mental health from mixing with colleagues.

A new online tool is reportedly being planned to help people avoid crowded trains and buses, while ministers are also expected to use a “carrot and stick” approach which includes warnings that those who do not head back in could face the sack.

One Government source told The Telegraph: “People need to understand that working from home is not the benign option it seems. 

“We need workers to be alert to what decisions their bosses may take in the weeks ahead.

“If they are only seeing workers once a fortnight then that could prove problematic for some employees in the future.

“We want employees to be careful what working arrangements they accept. 

“Suddenly the word ‘restructure’ is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position.”

But Labour’s Shadow Business minister Lucy Powell said it “beggars belief that the Government are threatening people like this during a pandemic”.

She added: “Forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable. Number 10 should condemn this briefing and categorically rule out any such campaign.”

And Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC union group, said: “Not everyone has the space or peace and quiet needed to work from home. Many staff would prefer to get back to the office. But the Prime Minister must do more to give people confidence it is safe to return.

“We need to have a fast and reliable test and trace system and we need better enforcement of transport safety and workplace risk assessments.”

Mr Johnson last month changed the Government’s advice on working remotely, shifting from advising the country to “work from home if you can” to telling people they should begin returning to the workplace at the “discretion” of their employers.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, who heads up the CBI business lobby group, warned this week that staying away from home meant some city centres now resembled “ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade”.

“This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities,” she warned.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock appeared to be at odds with the Government’s message on Thursday, as he was pressed on how many civil servants in his department had ditched working from home since the shift in advice.

 “I have absolutely no idea,” he told Times Radio. 

“What I care about is how effectively people work.

“And obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job, and also, obviously employers need to make sure the offices are Covid-19 secure as we have obviously in the Department for Health as you would fully expect us to. 

“But what what I care about is that people perform.”

Pressed on the report of a fresh back-to-work drive on Friday morning, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Breakfast: “Gradually now people will start to return to the office.

"But I suspect we'll see more flexible working than we've seen in the past, and it will be for employers and employees to work out the right balance in their particular cases.“ 

And while the Cabinet minister said his own department was “encouraging people back now and we've done a lot of work on the department to make it Covid-secure”, he would not give a figure for the percentage of DfT officials now back in the office.

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