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Silence Is Golden: What Boris Didn't Say About Working From Home

Boris Johnson

England will unlock on 19 July, with most remaining Covid-related social distancing requirements dropped, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday 5 July.

Yet of the 4,300 words in the UK government’s Covid-19 Response: Summer 2021 document, just 90 refer to the workplace.

“It is no longer necessary for Government to instruct people to work from home. Employers can start to plan a return to workplaces,” it said, adding that new guidance will be issued on “sensible precautions that employers can take to reduce risk in their workplaces.”

“Employers should take account of this guidance in preparing the risk assessments they are already required to make under pre-pandemic health and safety rules,” it said.

And that’s it. Nothing more. This is a surprise, because in mid-June leaked papers were circulating suggesting the government planned a more extensive response including allowing working from home to be the default option for workers.

Landlords and trade organisations campaigning for a widespread return to working from work can draw reasons for comfort, and reasons for concern, from the document’s silence.

The comfort comes in the form of words included in the Covid-19 Winter Plan, which have now been omitted from the Summer Plan.

The earlier document said employers were encouraged “to enable a greater degree of home working.” Guidance issued simultaneously said that “everyone who can work from home should do so. Where people cannot do so — including, but not limited to, people who work in critical national infrastructure, construction, or manufacturing — they should continue to travel to their workplace.”   

These words are missing from yesterday’s document. 

Crucially, the legal requirement to work from home if you can was lifted on 2 December 2020.  

The downside is that the Summer 2021 document contains plenty of hints that the return to working from work may be short-lived.

The first big hint is in the title — Summer 2021. It implies a different winter 2021 document could be coming soon, just as it did last year.

Moreover, the document contains plenty of evidence that the government is keeping all options open.

The first warning is mild. It reads: “The Government may need to take measures to help manage the virus during periods of higher risk, such as winter, but will as far as possible prioritise strengthened guidance and seek to avoid imposing restrictions that have significant economic, social and health costs.”

The second suggests something closer to the tier system introduced, and then abandoned, last year. “The Government will maintain contingency plans for re-imposing economic and social restrictions at a local, regional or national level if evidence suggests they are necessary to suppress or manage a dangerous variant,” the document said.

It is too early to point to a market response, but data published just before the prime minister’s announcement suggested investors in the UK regions beginning to recover their faith in the office sector, although the bias is toward the affluent south.

Gerald Eve's figures showed Q2 investment in south east offices gathering pace strongly. Total Q2 transactions were £1.6B, exceeding even the £1.28B recorded in Q4 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic began. The £2.1B traded in H1 2021 nearly matched the £2.6B recorded throughout 2020. 

Data from Gerald Eve also showed £0.9B of office UK regional investment transactions in the first half of 2021, up by a steep 38% on the same dire period in 2020, but still long behind medium-term trends. The firm predicted a further £538M due for completion in Q3, meaning the UK regions outside the South East are on trend to replicate the £2.1B transactions recorded in 2020. However, 2019 recorded £4.4B and the five-year average before Covid-19 was £5.5B.