Boris Johnson at the last Coronavirus update briefing. Photo: Pippa Fowles/ Flickr - Number 10 / cropped original image / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at bottom of article Boris Johnson at the last Coronavirus update briefing. Photo: Pippa Fowles/ Flickr - Number 10 / cropped original image / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are desperate to get us back to work. ‘Work from home if you can’ has morphed into ‘get to work unless you really can’t’, says Chris Nineham

This is not following the science. Most research shows that it is virtually impossible to make workplaces safe while the virus is still circulating widely. The r number – the rate at which the virus is spreading – is actually rising across the country and is clearly too high for people to be safely concentrating in large numbers inside. The test and trace regime which Boris ludicrously claimed was world-beating on Wednesday – is in fact still a shambles.

Even many employers representatives are not comfortable with the government’s approach. One financial lobby group warned recently, ‘the main focus for businesses is the ability to provide a safe office environment for staff, as well as staff concerns around using public transport.”

The back-to-work drive is dangerous and clearly increases the risk of a second surge. Any sensible government would be focussing its energies on totally suppressing the virus. But this isn’t even in any simple sense about balancing the needs of health and the economy. Most employers can live with home working as in many sectors it doesn’t seem to have affected output, although they are nervous about maintaining managerial control. Corporate health and safety experts are arguing that maintaining social distancing at work requires a halving of the number of people in most offices. Many argue that a rush to work is likely in fact to damage the economy, ‘Loss of workforce to the illness could cause production problems. Making most of the workforce stay at home reduces the chances of transmission and protects production capability.’

The government’s main concern appears to be that home working has stopped us shopping and snacking. The fact that city centres are still largely deserted is damaging parts of the retail industry so dear to the Tories hearts. It is also creating big losses on transport systems for which the government may have to pick up the bill. As Chairman of the British Safety Council Lawrence Waterman said, ‘I think Mr Johnson is thinking that if people aren’t going back to work some of the hospitality and food sectors could be affected.’

The idea that getting us back into shops and cafes is a strategy to deal with impending economic meltdown is ludicrous. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an argument the government is winning. Polls, media vox-pops and empty offices all testify to a widespread reluctance to go back to work. An overwhelming majority of office workers are against a return to a ‘normal’ five day week in particular. People are not just concerned about the danger of the workplace but also the risks of public transport. Almost two-thirds of UK workers in one nationally representative poll agreed with the statement: “I do not feel comfortable commuting to work via public transport anymore, and think it will be one of the most stressful parts of my day.” This is entirely rational. Research suggests that public transport, particularly the London underground and particularly during crowded periods is an important vector for the spread of influenza like diseases.

But there are wider issues too. Lockdown has been very hard in many ways, and working from home can be very isolating. But for many people surveyed, it appears to have some advantages. The very significant time and energy saved by not commuting is time and energy effectively clawed back from the boss. The money not spent in Pret-a-Manger goes further in the local supermarket, saving workers significant amounts of money. Added to this is a general sense that working from home allows a bit more control over workers’ lives.

For all these reasons, Johnson and Gove’s unplanned rush back to work must be resisted. The whole labour movement needs to take up the campaign to ensure there is no return to workplaces that have not been modified and safety checked, that workers have the right to work from home if they want to and that there is an urgent programme of investment in public transport to make commuting safe.

We should also be using this moment of change to make permanent gains for workers – shorter working hours, less commuting and an official move to a four day week.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.