London/Stroud: Prime Minister Boris Johnson nudged Britons back to their office desks in an effort to revive the U.K.’s coronavirus-battered economy that risks putting him at odds with his own top scientific adviser.
From now on, anyone will be able to use public transport and, from Aug. 1, employers have “more discretion” on whether to bring staff back to the office, Johnson said in a televised press conference on Friday.
“We want to encourage people if it is safe to come into work,” Johnson told reporters. “Where employers think it’s time to come back and it can be done in a safe way, then that is what we think they should be doing.”
The prime minister also said he hoped to ease the remaining lockdown restrictions “and allow a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest — possibly in time for Christmas.”
With the economy shrinking a fifth in the three months through April, Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak are trying to revive struggling shops and restaurants in city centers and stave off an expected wave of job cuts as the government starts to end the unprecedented support its has provided to business and employees during the pandemic.
But Johnson’s comments put him at odds with Patrick Vallance, his chief scientific adviser, who told Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee on Thursday that he could see “absolutely no reason” to change the guidance for people to work from home if they can.
“We’re still at a time when distancing measures are important, and of the various distancing measures, working from home, for many companies, remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do,” said Vallance, who heads up the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. “A number of companies think actually it’s not detrimental to productivity.”
Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty briefed the cabinet on the plans earlier on Friday, Johnson said.
Vallance acknowledged that the government also has economic considerations to bear in mind as he sought to distance himself and his committee from policy decisions.
“In the end decisions are taken by the elected politicians,” Johnson said on Friday. “We have to weigh the advice we get.”
Johnson stressed his return-to-work plan is cautious. Employers “should only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe,” he said, and “whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees.”
From Aug. 1, leisure centers, casinos and bowling alleys will be allowed to reopen and live performances indoors to resume. While nightclubs and children’s soft-play areas will remain closed, conferences and other business events will be allowed to resume later in the year.
Johnson stressed this timetable is conditional, and warned the virus could become more virulent in the winter.
“Some will say this plan is too optimistic, the risks are too great, and we won’t overcome the virus in time,” he said. “If they are right — and we cannot exclude that they are — let me reassure them that we will not hesitate at any stage to put on the brakes.”
The prime minister also:
- Announced an extra 3 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) of extra funding to help prepare the National Health Service for a risk of a second peak in coronavirus cases
- Said “we are making sure we are ready for winter and planning for the worst”
- Announced plans to ramp up levels of testing for coronavirus to 500,000 a day by the end of October
- Gave local authorities more powers to impose local lockdowns, including closing specific premises and canceling events
Johnson’s hope for a return to normality by Christmas also clashes with the messaging from scientists, who say there’s likely to be an up-tick in the virus over the winter. Vallance warned on Thursday that cases are likely to increase again in the winter and “it’s quite probable that we will see this virus coming back in different waves over a number of years.”
Whitty told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on Friday that measures, including social-distancing, “need to continue for a long period of time.”
Johnson said it’s important to “hope for the best” while planning for the worst.
Christmas “is not only a very important time of year for families,” he said. “It’s also a very important time of year for the U.K. economy and, and for many many millions of people working in all kinds of sectors.”
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