Britons urged to get back to work as job losses mount

LONDON (AFP) – Britain’s government yesterday urged people to return to work amid concern about the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on the economy and struggling high street businesses.

“It is now safe to go back to work,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News television in an interview.

“I think there’s a limit, just in human terms, to remote working. And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress.”

The Daily Telegraph newspaper said Prime Minister Boris Johnson will launch a major publicity drive next week encouraging people to go back to the office.

The campaign will make the “emotional case” for face-to-face relationships with colleagues and reassure nervous workers that “the workplace is a safe place”, it added.

Ministers have also reportedly warned that bosses at struggling companies could be more inclined to sack workers they only interact with remotely.

A man walks across the street in the City of London. PHOTO: AFP

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

Johnson ordered Britons to stay at home in late March as the coronavirus outbreak took hold but even as restrictions were eased in July, many have opted to continue remote working.

Many British city centres remain eerily quiet, with offices empty and some companies moving to a home-working model either for the longer term or permanently.

A Morgan Stanley study published in early August indicated just one-third (34 per cent) of British office workers had returned to their desks, compared to 68 per cent in Europe.

Use of public transport, including national rail services, and buses and underground trains in the capital, London, remained well under capacity, government statistics showed.

A study by University College London indicated almost a third of people aged 30-59 and 30 per cent of those aged 18-29 planned to work from home after the end of the pandemic.

Business leaders have expressed concern about the effect on city centre businesses, which rely on office workers and passing trade, warning they risked turning into “ghost towns”.

On Thursday, coffee and sandwich chain Pret a Manger announced it was cutting 2,800 jobs because of the impact of the lockdown and continued lower than normal footfall.

The head of employers’ body the Confederation of British Industry, Carolyn Fairbairn, said: “Our offices are at risk of dying. And we would regret that very much if we allowed that to happen.”