The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s plea for workers to return to offices | Coronavirus outbreak

Boris Johnson will spearhead a campaign this week aimed at encouraging workers to take their seats in city centre offices after what for many of them has been a five-month break.

It will be an emotional plea to all those who have worked from home since the lockdown began in March to put their fears of catching the virus to one side and help revive high streets that have counted the cost of the pandemic in hundreds of closed shops and thousands of lost jobs. Britons have been among the slowest in the developed world to return to the office, fuelling concerns that the economic bounce-back will stall in the autumn, offsetting the potential benefit of children going back to school.

Johnson’s concern is understandable when the mental health benefits of returning life to some kind of normality are married to the economic boost it would bring. Many workers crave the social side of work and millions will gladly turn their back on cramped homes and kitchen tables ill-suited to long hours.

But this won’t be the case for everyone. And the reluctance of an increasingly professional city centre workforce – lawyers, academics, web designers, IT engineers – to trust their employers to provide a safe environment or to travel to work using public transport can to a large extent be laid at his door.

While the government scored a bullseye with its eat out to help out scheme, which encouraged people to leave home and visit their local pub, cafe and restaurant, almost all other government actions have undermined trust and made workers reluctant to swap home working for the office.

The advice to businesses is confusing, especially when it depends on a track-and-trace system that is floundering, while the message to local authorities is contradictory. On the one hand, they must restrict the number of cars coming into cities and on the other encourage commuters to journey in from the suburbs without using public transport, or at least not in the numbers they once did. There is a small budget to support cycling schemes, but travelling to work on a bike can never replace public transport for all, especially not as winter approaches.

No wonder the boss of the British Chambers of Commerce, Adam Marshall, reacted with dismay at what he described as “scaremongering”. He said the pace and scale of a return to the factory and office will result “from mature conversations between employers and employees”, before suggesting that city centres may never see a return to pre-crisis levels of activity.

Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said employers needed to ask only three questions: is returning to the workplace essential? Is it sufficiently safe to do so? Is it mutually agreed with the worker?

Marshall’s exasperation chimed with a survey by Cardiff University that found half of UK workers want to work at home permanently, while 90% want to do so “from time to time”. It is not the only survey that should tell ministers they need to spend time thinking about how new working patterns could benefit the country and even the public finances.

Cities, which have soaked up the bulk of the UK’s population growth over the last 20 years, have become a huge drain on the exchequer. London’s demands for new transport infrastructure, which matches the Greater London Authority’s prediction of a population rising from 9 million to more than 10 million by 2036, dwarf those of all other regions.

If the Brexit vote was in part a demand by towns that the government recognise that they too need investment, then surely the pandemic provides the excuse to accelerate ways to bring that about. The government needs to revive the economy and cities are a vital part of that. Yet if it wants to build a more sustainable economy and level up the regions, demanding a return to old ways of working will mean it fails.

Source: The Guardian

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