Great Britain

Why it’s too risky for ministers to push everyone back to work

Is it government policy that people who are working from home should return to their offices? Boris Johnson and ministers gave mixed messages over the weekend, after Johnson urged everyone – not just those whose jobs cannot be done remotely – to return to work. But government advice remains that those who can work from home should do so – and perhaps, more importantly, Conservative Party conference continues to be a digital-only event. 

As I wrote on Friday, the reality is that while people are working from home, the businesses that have developed and expanded to service the needs of commuters will continue to suffer. Pret A Manger, Greggs, John Lewis, Timpson's, Upper Crust, WHSmith: you name it, if it has a branch at or near a major train station, its fortunes are set to shrink in the short term and it may well disappear completely in the long run – unless it can manage the transition from servicing commuters in city centres to catering to them in residential areas. 

The government is trying to cajole people back into city centres – but why should they return? We still don't know what the two-year prognosis for someone with the novel coronavirus is, we still don't know whether you can get it multiple times, and medical treatments haven't yet reached the point at which an uncontrolled outbreak can be dealt with without overloading healthcare systems, as we saw in March in Italy and may be about to see again in Israel. 

Of course, if you're Boris Johnson, then if it turns out that in 10 to 15 years, the long-term prognosis and health complications for people with the novel coronavirus is grim, then it's someone else's problem. Let James Cleverly, or Louise Haigh, or whoever is in power, then deal with the health consequences – in the here and now, it's the economic turmoil that is Johnson's problem. But businesses don't have a similarly short lifespan – if the risks of returning to work turn out to be greater than thought, that is still very much their problem.

Equally importantly, in the here and now, businesses have found they can still trade profitably without servicing expensive office properties in the centre of towns and cities – why would they increase their own costs and commuting times to save Pret A Manger? Most businesses, and indeed most consumers, didn't increase their own costs to save BOOKS etc., Borders or Ottakar’s from Amazon. 

The forces at play in both cases can’t be wished away by governments or turned back by exhortation and a few Latin quips from the Prime Minister. What ministers can do is make it easier for businesses to transition and to provide the unemployed with a genuine, non-punitive safety net, while easing some of those pressures by doing everything possible to stop the novel coronavirus in its tracks.

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