It’s official; government guidance to “work from home if you can” will be relaxed in England from 19 July, with Boris Johnson informing the nation it must learn to live with Covid-19.
This means workers will be able to return to the office, though the prime minister said it would be up to employers to determine their own working patterns.
“The key thing is the government is no longer telling people that it’s necessary that they should work from home and the rest is really for employees and employers to work out for themselves,” he insisted.
When asked whether he hoped that the easing of restrictions on 19 July would spark an economic recovery for the UK, Johnson added: “I think it will be a strong recovery and you’re already starting to see it and that has been made possible by the certainties of the roadmap and the vaccine.”
Considering that Covid-19 cases are predicted to rise to 50,000 a day later this month, owing to the highly-infectious Delta variant, and Johnson’s insistence that “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid,” it’s unsurprising that his comments have not been well received by many on social media.
“If you view Boris Johnson’s actions from a public health perspective they make no sense. If you view them from a Tory economic perspective they make perfect sense,” reads one tweet.
“Get the commoners back to work, open everything up, get the money flowing. Let the bodies pile high.”
“What Boris means is that Covid is less important now because the government is broke and we need to get back to work so they can raise more taxes,” reads another.
One more insists angrily: “Boris is basically saying, some people in the UK will die, but it’s all worth it for the wage slaves to go back to work to make money for his billionaire donors.”
“Johnson asks the deeply disingenuous question ‘if we can’t reopen now, then when?’ Just a thought, but maybe when a variant you actively welcomed into the country isn’t surging through a population that isn’t fully vaccinated?” asks another in disbelief.
Another states: “Learning to live with the virus is much like learning to live with this Tory government… an endless threat to your welfare thanks to idiots that think it’s harmless.”
“Turns out it was dates rather than data,” scoffs another.
And Carole Cadwalladr, meanwhile, has tweeted: “Herd immunity. Herd immunity. Herd immunity. Herd immunity. Herd immunity. Can we please now call it by its name? A reckless deliberate population infection strategy with unknown consequences not being contemplated by any other country in the world.”
The backlash, of course, doesn’t end there.
“Go back to work in your offices from 19 July says @BorisJohnson,” reads one more tweet. “You have to learn to live with Covid and accept infections and deaths. Luckily for Bozo the House of Commons goes into summer recess for over 6 weeks on 22 July so not much learning for him and other MPs.”
Elsewhere, Deepti Gurdasani’s now-viral thread asks: “What do [people] do when their employers tell them they have to come in because the govt has removed ‘work from home’ guidance? Do they accept losing their jobs, or risk their lives going into workplaces where masks aren’t mandated, where there are no ventilation requirements?”
Another notes: “Anxiety through the roof after listening to Boris announce lifting of all restrictions. I have asthma, chronic bronchitis and am prone to very bad chest infections (the last few resulted in pleurisy). But now I can’t work from home? The thought of being around people with no restrictions is terrifying.”
“So glad I work for a company that won’t be forcing everyone back to the office unnecessarily after 19 July,” says one more. “Most people prefer working from home, and the companies that have listened to that should be praised.”
And Labour MP Stella Creasy, meanwhile, has tweeted: “Does the prime minister have a number of deaths he’s asking us to accept? The cost he asks us to pay? Whose balance sheet does he have in mind here in asking us to accept?!”
The outrage is palpable, and no wonder; indeed, if you’ve even so much as glanced at social media over the past year and a bit, you’ll no doubt know that Johnson has already accused Brits of having “quite a few days off” during the global Covid-19 pandemic.
“The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office,” he joked during the virtual Conservative spring forum.
However, the prime minister’s tone-deaf comments – delivered in response to calls for a national bank holiday celebrating the end of lockdown – understandably caused frustration at the time, as they seemingly implied that months of working from home are akin to… well, months of idleness.
Indeed, shadow employment minister Andy McDonald told The Observer: “[Johnson] is trying to appease the libertarian wing of his party on the one hand by talking about getting back to the office, then suggesting he is being cautious.
“He just throws out comments like this. You can’t ride two horses at once. It is not leadership, it is simply cavalier.”
McDonald added: “A right to seek flexible and remote working should be matched by a duty on employers to grant such a request so far as is reasonable.”
It is worth noting that this isn’t the first time that the government has come under fire for its attitude towards flexible and remote working schemes. Indeed, just last August, an unnamed government source told The Telegraph that workers need to be “alert” and that it could be “problematic” if bosses “are only seeing workers once a fortnight”.
“Suddenly the word ‘restructure’ is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position,” the source added.
Or, to put it more bluntly, “go back to work or risk losing your job.”
Later that month, in a bid to explain the government’s position to Sky News, transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back [to the office].
“Your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure it is coronavirus-safe to work.”
And this, of course, is all well and good: workers’ safety should and must be considered.
The thing we object to, though, is the phrase “go back to work.”
Because, as anyone who has been WFH will no doubt attest, we’ve been working really bloody hard – and in very stressful conditions – for months.
As previously reported by Stylist, the reality of WFH during a global pandemic is very different to what some might imagine. Indeed, many of us have been piling enormous pressure upon ourselves to do better. To work faster, longer, harder than ever before. To come up with ideas and solutions in silo. To push past feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty brought on by Covid-19. To pull together in these unprecedented times.
And, above all else, to prove to our managers, miles away and busily focused on their own duties, that we are 100% engaged and ready for anything.
Despite this, too many people – including controversial columnist Richard Littlejohn – have heaped scorn on those who are “boasting smugly about their exciting new ‘work/life’ balance and the amount of money they are saving on their railway season tickets.”
Right. Because it’s apparently now a character flaw to even entertain the possibility that a two-hour morning commute isn’t all that beneficial to our bank accounts and emotional wellbeing then, is it?
Of course, I understand why people are trying to drive workers out of their homes and into offices, even if they’re going about it in the worst possible way. Figures compiled for Sky News in 2020, after all, revealed that worker footfall in Britain’s cities was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels in the first two weeks of August.
And Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, previously warned that the office workers are vital drivers of the UK economy, supporting “thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars.”
That being said, though, perhaps it’s time to consider another way forward. Because, despite six out of 10 bosses in the country agreeing that cutting hours would benefit their business, the average (pre-Covid) working week for Brits remains sat at 43.6 hours, or 8 hours and 40 minutes per day – which isn’t great news, considering that longer working hours have been linked with an increased risk of strokes, heart disease, and obesity (not to mention increased risk of mental health problems brought about by associated stress).
Throw in the fact that Sweden’s introduction of a six-hour working day boosted productivity, lowered turnover rates, reduced sick leave, and boosted the emotional wellbeing of employees, and it becomes clearer than ever that something needs to give.
And that ‘something’ is the outdated idea that work can only take place in an office. That workers need to be watched constantly lest they “start dossing”. That the ongoing recession can apparently be blamed on those who are WFH.
It’s disrespectful, quite frankly. And it needs to stop.
If anything positive has come out of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s this: employers know now that they can 100% trust employees to get the job done. And, better still, we can trust them to get it done without having them trek into the office, rinse their bank accounts on overpriced trains and sarnies, and lose hours of their non-working day to their commutes.
With that in mind, then, let’s use this learning to do away with toxic presenteeism and transform workplace culture for the better.