Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street / CC 2.0, licence linked at bottom of article Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street / CC 2.0, licence linked at bottom of article

The prime minister has recklessly heralded a renewed push back to the workplace for millions of people, writes Alex Snowdon 

1st August, just two weeks away, has been deemed the day for a wide range of workplaces to get back into action. This includes a shift in tone on using public transport – from disapproval unless it is really necessary to active encouragement. 

This emphasis on getting back to work is accompanied by a wider effort to ‘return to normal’. In an unfortunate echo of 1914, there is even talk from Boris Johnson of it all being over by Christmas. He outlined a number of milestones on the way such as a resumption of indoor public performances (such as concerts and theatre) and spectator sport by October, perhaps followed by the ending of social distancing regulations as early as November. 

The timing of the ‘back to work’ push is downright peculiar. 1st August is in the summer holidays – a month before the across-the-board return to the schools that will allow millions of parents the option of going out to work. It gives the impression of panic and desperation, not coherent long-term planning. 

It is also as if senior Tories have forgotten that most parents cannot rely on an au pair to look after the children. It is notable that childcare was not even mentioned when the announcement was made yesterday. The burden of combining paid work with childcare and domestic tasks falls disproportionately on working class women, who are therefore being subjected to serious pressures and strains. 

Widening gulf 

The gulf between political announcements and senior scientific and medical advice has been widening recently. It has become a chasm in the last couple of days. On Thursday Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said that there is currently no basis for changing the guidance that people should work from home if possible. Yet the next day Johnson contradicted that. 

The daily media briefings recently came to an end, having transformed over time from a useful opportunity for government PR to a daily exposure of failure and incompetence. It was significant that towards the end the involvement of ostensibly neutral senior experts had declined sharply. That symbolised the growing divergence between cabinet ministers and even the rather timid establishment representatives of medical and scientific opinion. 

Neither Vallance nor the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, took part in Johnson’s press conference yesterday. They have both emphasised that the latest announcements are political decisions. 

This week also saw the publication of a major report by 37 senior medical and scientific figures warning of a second wave of coronavirus this winter. It forecasts a worst-case scenario of 120,000 deaths during the winter months and calls for urgent and serious planning to avoid it. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson said he was ‘aware’ of the report, suggesting that he hadn’t actually read it. This is despite it being commissioned by the government. 

Panic and incoherence 

The weakness of Johnson’s stance is typified by his comments yesterday that employers will need to judge when exactly it is or isn’t safe to bring workers back to the workplace. This reflects the serious doubts being raised by advisers and experts, not to mention employers. Trade unions, representing millions of workers, are even more critical. 

It is now well-established that many workplaces – indoor spaces bringing together significant numbers of people for large amounts of time – are crucial sites of virus transmission. Measures can indeed be taken to reduce the dangers in workplaces, but real and serious risks remain: they cannot be made entirely Covid-secure. The risks of public transport are equally well-known. 

Two weeks ago – on Super Saturday – I argued that important aspects of the lockdown lifting were dangerously premature and, furthermore, that this was motivated by narrow economic considerations not by public health. It is obvious from the cautious public response to taking advantage of these changes that many people don’t trust the government and are wary and sceptical. Government frustrations with popular caution are clearly a big factor behind the latest workplace reopening drive. 

Local lockdowns may become more common in this context. However, these could be devastating for communities once furloughing has ended. Unlike the nationwide lockdown, these localised measures will not be happening in conditions of massive state intervention to support jobs and pay, so they could be highly punitive and especially bad for low-paid or insecure workers. The current push ‘back to normality’ is also dependent on a level of community testing and tracing that still isn’t in place. 

What’s needed is not premature relaxation of restrictions and arbitrary timelines that have little relationship to reality. Instead there should have been a concerted effort to eliminate the virus, therefore minimising the threat of a massive resurgence this winter. 

Even now, political decisions can still make an important difference. A more cautious approach to returning to work, getting the test-and trace programme working properly and investing more in the NHS are among them. These measures are not just sensible in prioritising health and saving lives, but in the long term are likely to have economic benefits.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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