09:41 GMT19 April 2021
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    UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who appeared virtually at the Conservative spring forum on Saturday to expound on issues such as the vaccination drive in the country and potential impact from the third coronavirus wave sweeping Europe, said he can see nothing in the data to dissuade him from continuing along his lockdown easing roadmap.

    Boris Johnson has come under fire for suggesting that people have had enough “days off” at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and should make an effort to return to their offices, reported The Guardian.

    While an official revision of COVID-19 guidelines on when employees should return to their workplaces doesn't exist yet, when asked at the Conservative party conference on 27 March whether there should be a special bank holiday, also dubbed "national hangover day", when the pandemic subsides, Johnson, attending virtually, said:

    “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.”

    Johnson, who touched upon a wide range of topics, from the roadmap out of the lockdown to the possibility of a third wave of COVID-19 hitting the UK, added that Chancellor Rishi Sunak "was pretty keen" for people to get back into the office.

    Elsewhere at the virtual spring forum, Boris Johnson said:

    "I think the second half of the year will have the potential to be really fantastic. But it depends on things still going right. We depend on the successful vaccine programme and disease not taking off again."

    The prime minister’s comments were met with a degree of alarm among scientists, while the opposition Labour Party branded them both “irresponsible” and “glaringly inconsistent” with the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.

    “He is trying 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,” Andy McDonald, the shadow employment rights and protections secretary, was quoted as saying.

    McDonald added that the government should be strengthening the right of employees to work from home when possible.

    ‘Cautious Approach’ Urged

    This comes as a warning has been given by scientists that an immediate return to the office would be premature.

    “At this point, the focus has to be on keeping new daily cases as low as possible, while the vaccination rollout continues. We know that transmission is higher when people gather indoors for prolonged periods of time. Therefore, people should be encouraged to continue working from home for the foreseeable future,” said Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University.

    Prof. Martin Hibberd, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, similarly urged the government to adopt a more cautious approach.

    ​“With infections stabilising and new variants arriving, I feel we should be careful. If variant-adapted booster vaccines can arrive in September, and be given on a background of low infection numbers, then I think we will finally be ahead of the virus,” he was cited as saying.

    ‘Hybrid Working’

    The coronavirus pandemic brought with it diverse protocols set in place to contain the spread of the disease, such as lockdowns, social distancing, and guidelines to encourage working from home.

    Accordingly, some of the UK’s leading recruitment organisations were cited by the Observer as suggesting that radical changes were inevitable after the health crisis.

    A veteran wearing a Royal Hospital Chelsea hat, and in PPE (personal protective equipment) of a face mask, as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, stands outside the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London
    © AFP 2021 / DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS
    A veteran wearing a Royal Hospital Chelsea hat, and in PPE (personal protective equipment) of a face mask, as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, stands outside the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London

    Far more people would opt to work remotely, they claim, while the situation would prompt companies to rethink how to deploy staff effectively.

    A “hybrid working” model might become popular on a mass scale, believe experts. This might see the traditional five-day week model of office work being replaced with flexible arrangements, with a varying amount of days spent at home and in the office.

    Different strategies are being adopted by companies across the country. Thus, last week the Nationwide building society said it would allow all employees to work remotely.

    ​Investment bank Goldman Sachs, however, voiced the hope that all 34,000 global employees would be back in the office “as soon as possible”.

    Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, weighed in on the “hybrid” working option.

    “I think most five-day-a-week workers whose jobs are in a city like London, Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow will not be doing five days a week [in the office] when this is all over,” he said.

    Currently, the official government advice urging people to work from home if possible is still in place, with no changes anticipated, despite a drop in COVID-19 hospital admissions and death rates.

    ​The UK will see a further easing of COVID-19 restrictions on 29 March, as groups of up to six people, or two families, will be allowed to socialise outdoors. Outdoor sports will also be permitted as of Monday.

    Wales became the first in the UK to lift restrictions on unlimited travel across the country on Saturday.

    Small choirs will be allowed to perform at churches in England on Palm Sunday and Easter, with congregations able to sing in church grounds.

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    coronavirus, COVID-19, Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson
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