Work

Key Workers Must Still Self-Isolate When Not Working

A small list of key workers have been made exempt from self-isolation rules amid reports of food shortages due to the “pingdemic“. Staff in the hospitality and retail sectors have, however, been told they must still stay at home if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app, despite their industries taking a battering from strict quarantine rules. To make matters even more confusing, the Government has announced that exempt key workers do have to self-isolate when they are not on shift! The Times has the story.

Ministers announced last night that emergency measures to protect food supplies will see thousands of workers in critical areas such as supermarket depots and food manufacturing avoid the need to self-isolate if ‘pinged’ or contacted by a Test and Trace official. …

The same exemptions were made for frontline NHS and social care staff earlier this week, with isolation rules being replaced by regular testing.

However, the Government has confirmed that outside work, staff will remain under a duty to self-isolate and should not otherwise leave their homes.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Participants in daily Covid testing will be exempt from self-isolation to undertake work or essential activities only.”

The “essential activities” exemption is slightly wider than normal self-isolation rules, with workers able to exercise in an outdoor space, buy food if no one else can do it for them, and use public transport “for essential trips”.

[Environment Secretary George] Eustice has suggested that the Government could delay the planned August 16th lifting of all self-isolation rules for double-vaccinated people, saying the Government had only announced the date to give “some kind of indication” of when rules might change. He said that the date could still move “in either direction”.

Tory backbench MPs have been pushing to bring the ending of restrictions forward to avoid further disruption to the economy.

Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary, said the Government risked “losing social consent” for isolation if it did not immediately bring forward the relaxation of quarantine rules for the fully vaccinated.

This was echoed by Greg Clark, the former Business Secretary who is Chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The Conservative MP told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “We know that on August 16th a new system will come in, in which you can take a test if you’re named as a contact and only isolate if you’re positive – I don’t see why we can’t begin that now on July 23th rather than wait.” …

The new exemption rules have already caused confusion, with businesses saying they have not been given enough detail of who might be eligible for exemptions or how.

Nick Allen, Chief Executive of the British Meat Processing Association, said: “There needs to be recognition this is a 24/7 supply chain, and you can’t wait to Monday to understand who’s going to be included for this and how it’s going to work – I’ve been inundated with questions from members about how it’s going to work that I just can’t answer at the moment.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) has also urged ministers to clarify who may qualify for exemption from self-isolation. …

Bin collections appeared to be the worst affected, but road repairs, leisure facilities and park maintenance could also be hit, the LGA said.

Worth reading in full.

Mandatory Face Masks and Advice to Work From Home Should Be Reintroduced to Keep Figures “Under Control”, Say SAGE Scientists

Just how final was the July 19th “terminus date“? If Government advisers in SAGE have anything to do with it, then not at all. Some have argued that a number of restrictions, such as mandatory face masks and advice to work from home, should be brought back at the beginning of August if hospitalisation levels increase to keep the figures “under control”. And it’s hard to imagine the Government standing firm against this pressure, given that both a minister and the Chief Medical Officer have said Brits will “of course” face a new lockdown if the NHS comes under further pressure. The i has the story.

Scientific advisers have warned that Boris Johnson should be prepared to act in the first week of August to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed by the end of that month.

Modelling has suggested that the central case for U.K. daily hospitalisations at the peak of the third wave – expected at the end of August – could be between 1,000 and 2,000, with deaths predicted to be between 100 and 200 per day. …

Last week Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said hospitalisations were doubling roughly every three weeks. 

This would suggest close to 1,500 admissions by the end of the first week of August, well above the trajectory for the central case scenario for the third wave. It would point to 3,000 at the peak by the end of that month, which would match the peak of the first wave in April 2020.

Insiders stressed there is a lot of uncertainty in the modelling, and the picture will change all the time depending on vaccine take-up and people’s behaviour after July 19th.

But if admissions are outstripping the central estimates, SAGE scientists have advised that some non-pharmaceutical measures should be reintroduced, such as mandatory face masks and advice to work from home, in early August, halfway between the July 19th unlocking and the predicted peak at the end of August.

This early intervention, they argue, would prevent the NHS becoming swamped in a late summer crisis. …

Last week, when the Prime Minister gave the go-ahead for the fourth and final stage of the roadmap in England, he accepted that some restrictions may have to be reimposed if the situation worsened.

A source said what was needed was “less of an emergency brake and more of a gear change” in readiness to keep the third wave “under control”.

While mandatory face masks would be the “easiest” route to curb transmission, with minimal impact on the economy if it were kept to public transport and essential settings like supermarkets, this would have to be weighed against the “totemic” impact it would have on the public if they were ordered to cover up once again.

But others are arguing that the Government should be prepared to take tougher action.

Professor Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health for Blackburn, said: “Any return to non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to control spread would have to focus on those that give the biggest suppression effect. 

“Essentially we might expect a reverse through the lockdown lifting steps with each ‘reverse step’ being introduced to match the scale of the surge in cases.”

Worth reading in full.

Fiji Government Announces “No Jab, No Job” Policy

In Fiji, you might not be paid to get vaccinated against Covid, but you are likely to lose your source of income if you don’t. The Fijian Government has warned all workers that they won’t be able to work if they don’t get ‘jabbed’. The Guardian has the story.

The Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, said in a televised address on Thursday night that employers and employees in the private sector should receive at least one dose of vaccine by August 1st.

“It does not matter if you are the CEO of a company, a sole trader or a salaried employee, you must be vaccinated to continue working or else that business will risk being shut down. No jabs, no job – that is what the science tells us is safest and that is now the policy of Government and enforced through law,” he said.

Civil servants will be directed to take leave if they do not get a first jab before August 15th, and they are expected to be fully vaccinated by November 1st or face dismissal.

The ramping up of the vaccination campaign also includes spot fines ranging from $20 to $4,000 for breaching any of more than 20 offences outlined in public health regulations.

Bainimarama said: “The good news is that the coronavirus vaccines are working and we are deploying them quickly. The AstraZeneca vaccine which we are administering in Fiji does very well. It has been shown to offer 92% protection against hospitalisation from the Delta variant of Covid-19 present in the country.

“With other, potentially deadlier variants spreading around the world, including the highly contagious Lambda variant next door in Australia, we cannot afford to waste time getting vaccinated and getting back the lives and livelihoods we know and love. These simple measures slow the spread and prevent more cases of severe disease and death.” …

The Fiji Trades Union Congress previously encouraged all workers to be vaccinated but maintained that the law must protect anyone exercising their right not to get the jabs.

Worth reading in full.

Working from Home during Lockdown Caused Loneliness and Mental Distress

An increasing number of businesses, tempted by the prospect of saving on hefty office costs, are telling their staff to work from home at least some of the time. The Government believes this should become the “default” position for employees post-lockdown, despite research showing that working from home can not only reduce productivity but can also increase – and has increased – levels of loneliness and mental distress – even for those who do not live alone. The Observer has more.

With ministers still debating how to manage the return to workplaces in the wake of Covid restrictions, a study by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) found that the biggest increases in mental distress and loneliness during the pandemic were felt by the most isolated group – those working from home and living alone. However, in a finding that surprised researchers, people working from home and living with others also experienced a significant increase in loneliness not felt by those working outside the home.

Analysts examined data from interviews carried out with 8,675 people before the pandemic and in May, July and November 2020. They found that people able to work from home have been protected from financial difficulties that can drive poor mental health. When financial circumstances, loneliness and demographic characteristics were controlled for in the research, however, people working from home recorded bigger increases in mental distress.

“More of us than ever now work from home and use technology to replace many aspects of work previously done in person, but this cannot fully replicate the working environment for everyone,” said Isabel Taylor, Research Director at NatCen. “As the Government considers current working guidance, individuals, employers and government departments should be aware of the impact working from home is likely having on people’s mental health.”

People were first advised to work from home by the Government in March last year. A month later almost half of U.K. workers were working from home at least some of the time. While limited numbers of people have returned to their workplaces since, advice to work from home has continued into 2021.

The advice could end on July 19th, though a debate about the measure remains. Experts from SAGE have warned in official papers that some measures are “likely to be needed beyond the end of the current roadmap process” to avoid “the likelihood of having to reverse parts of the road map”.

Government sources have denied reports that it was drawing up plans to give workers the right to work from home for ever if they wished to do so. However, they are planning a shift towards greater flexibility for workers in the future. Even before the pandemic hit, the 2019 Conservative election manifesto vowed to “encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to”. …

The new NatCen paper states that there are other considerations that should be taken into account, including the interactions between colleagues and the clearer divide between work and personal lives that could be playing a part in its findings about mental health distress.

Worth reading in full.

Cancelled Job Offers Prompt Recent University Graduates to Enrol on Masters Programmes

With many work placements and internships cancelled last year due to lockdown, and a good deal of employers not bothering to get back to failed applicants, thousands of recent university graduates have rushed to study “panic masters” courses. The Observer has the story.

Universities including UCL, Cambridge and Edinburgh, told the Observer they were seeing substantial increases, ranging between 10 and 20%, in the number of U.K. students applying to study for postgraduate degrees in the autumn.

Mary Curnock Cook, an admissions expert who is chairing an independent commission on students, said the rise is due to “a collapse in confidence in the graduate employment market”. There is a backlog of applications from graduates who struggled to secure roles last year or whose placements were cancelled, she said.

“That’s what’s causing this idea of the panic master’s,” she said. “A lot of what I’m hearing is people getting stressed about making tons of applications and not even getting acknowledgement. It’s a stain on employers that they’re not treating their applicants with common courtesy.”

Curnock Cook added that while master’s degrees are usually worthwhile investments since they are favoured by many employers and result in higher average salaries, she advised against “making decisions in a rush for the wrong reasons”, particularly since loans available for postgraduate study does not cover living expenses.

Dan Barcroft, Head of Admissions at Sheffield University, said postgrad study has been especially popular among undergraduates planning to remain at the university, with application numbers rising by 35%. “People are choosing to stay in education at a time of economic turbulence,” he said. …

Last year top graduate employers cut vacancies by nearly a half, although some jobs have been reinstated this year. There are particular shortages of entry-level roles in the industries that have been worst affected by the pandemic, including travel, hospitality and retail.

recent survey of more than 2,000 students by advice service Prospects showed that over a third of university finalists are changing their career plans due to the pandemic, while two-thirds who are planning postgraduate study are choosing to do so to switch career path.

Nearly half of university students said they felt unprepared for the job market, citing a lack of experience, vacancies and their skills as the main barriers. 

Worth reading in full.

Asda Moves Towards “Hybrid Working” for Office Staff

Asda has announced that its 4,000 head office staff will be allowed to work where they like in the near future, becoming the latest business giant to move away from office-based work amid suggestions that “hybrid working”, where staff work from home some of the time, could become the norm post-lockdown. BBC News has the story.

The supermarket group said staff at Asda House in Leeds and George House in Leicester can choose where they work.

Around 4,000 staff work at both offices, with the majority based in Leeds.

England is set to lift final Covid measures on July 19th and many businesses have indicated they will continue to allow flexible working.

However, not all companies plan to embrace a hybrid approach. Goldman Sachs International has said it wants people to come back into the office once restrictions have ended.

Asda said its new approach “will encourage colleagues to select the best location to do their job”, including home, head office or even a store or depot.

However, the company said the model would not work for all employees, such as those who need to have close contact with colleagues, like, for example, people who work in training.

But it said staff also “have the flexibility to work from home when it is more productive to do so, such as tasks that involve planning or research”. 

Asda’s plan is similar to one adopted by Nationwide, which will allow the building society’s 13,000 office employees to “work anywhere”. 

Nationwide is closing three offices in Swindon and the 3,000 staff based at those sites can either move to the nearby headquarters, work from home or mix the two. Some employees may be able to work from a local High Street branch if they prefer, instead of travelling to an office.

The “hybrid working” approach is likely favoured because of its cost-cutting benefits. However, some are concerned that working from home reduces levels of productivity.

The BBC News report is worth reading in full.

Government Considering Making Working from Home “Default” Option

Workspace provider IWG (formerly Regus) said in March that, after lockdown, “hybrid working”, where staff work from home some of the time, will become “the norm”. With the Government confirming on Thursday that it is considering making working from home (WFH) the “default” position by giving employees the right to request it, we are a step closer to this. The Guardian has the story.

Responding to reports that ministers could change the law, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said a flexible working taskforce was examining how best to proceed.

“What we’re consulting on is making flexible working a default option unless there are good reasons not to,” they said. That would mirror the approach to other forms of flexible working, such as part-time hours.

However, they emphasised there would be no legal right to work from home, adding that the Prime Minister still believed there were benefits to being in the office, including collaboration with colleagues.

Business lobby groups have said many of their members are considering keeping flexible and hybrid approaches adopted during the pandemic. Sixty-three per cent of members of the Institute of Directors said they intended to shift to working from home for office-based workers for between one and four days a week.

However, the Confederation of British Industry, another lobby group, said it opposed giving workers an automatic right to work from home. “The default must remain that businesses control where work is done. While they will need to talk with workers about this, accommodate flexibility where they can and explain these decisions, it can’t be unduly onerous to do so,” said Matthew Percival, the CBI’s Director of People and Skills. “That’s why a ‘right to request’ approach is the right one.”

The pandemic [that is, lockdown] has ushered in drastically different working arrangements for many office workers, but the plan to legislate to support working from home had already been mooted in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto…

Ministers have been advised that removal of all restrictions on workplaces could be risky, according to a document first reported by Politico. Instead, the Government is thought to be considering advice for a hybrid approach, blending continued home working with some time in the office when necessary.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Downing Street has denied the story, saying there are “no plans” to make working from home the default after the pandemic or to legislate for a legal right to work from home. But many things the Government has said it has “no plans” for have subsequently turned out to be very much in the pipeline, so we shall see.

Pub Landlords Urge Government to End Furlough Because It Is Destroying Work Ethic

Landlords and restaurant owners have called on the Government to end the furlough scheme to help offset a recruitment crisis, saying that those on furlough would rather stay at home than come out and work. There are 188,000 job vacancies in hospitality where more than 250,000 workers remain on furlough. The Sun on Sunday has the story.

[Some owners] are so short-staffed, some have been offering £1,000 joining-up bonuses to coax back uncertain workers. 

They blame the £63 billion Government pay scheme, as would-be recruits prefer to stay home and take state cash.

The Sun on Sunday can reveal U.K.-wide there are 700,000 job vacancies, including 188,000 in hospitality alone where more than 250,000 remain on furlough.

The scheme does not stop until the end of September, amid uncertainty over the economy. 

But experts fear some have now lost the will to work. Professor Len Shackleton, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “Furlough has been a great success but has gone on for far too long.

“We should wind it up and get back to reality. We should not be holding back new businesses which need workers in a vain attempt to keep old businesses alive.”

Furlough began in March last year to stop firms laying off staff, or collapsing, during lockdown. 

Some  11.5 million workers have been furloughed, with 4.2 million still on the handout at the end of March this year. It has helped keep unemployment at around five%.

A Treasury spokesman said: “Furlough means two million fewer people will have lost their jobs.  

“We went long with furlough to avoid a cliff edge and ensure as many jobs as possible are protected.”

But it is down to employers to stop the payouts, by ceasing to apply for the state to pay 80% of a worker’s wages. 

Meanwhile, trade body U.K. Hospitality says 15% of its workers, or around 270,000, are reluctant to come off furlough, over fears of another lockdown.

U.K. Hospitality’s Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said: “Furlough is still essential, helping to make sure jobs are protected over the summer.

“But it could be tightened up to ensure it is not masking problems in our economy and protecting jobs that are no longer there.

“Lots of people are trying to recruit and in some parts of the country there are vacancies that they cannot fill.” 

Worth reading in full.

End of Lockdown Unlikely to Bring an End to Face Masks and Work from Home Guidelines

Professor Anthony Harnden, the Deputy Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), says that the unlocking of society will be a “gradual process” requiring a “cautious” approach – even if the June 21st date for the end of lockdown is met. He told BBC Breakfast (as quoted in WalesOnline):

Even if we do un-lockdown, if you are in a vulnerable position, particularly if you’ve not been vaccinated, you do need to carry on being cautious, even if the June 21st date goes ahead.

So I think we’ve all got used to living within boundaries at the moment and I think it’s not an all or none, I think it will be a gradual process even if the June 21st date goes ahead.

According to the Times, the Government is prioritising ending social distancing guidelines, but will likely leave guidance around masking and working from home in place.

The Treasury is prioritising the end of the “one metre plus” distancing rule and the “rule of six” indoors, which is viewed as crucial to supporting hospitality and retail and helping the economy to recover. Ministers also want to end rules that limit mass gatherings so that festivals, concerts and sporting events can go ahead…

In an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus, masks could still be required on public transport and in indoor public spaces. Guidance stating that people must work from home if they can may also remain in place. Boris Johnson is expected to make a decision on which restrictions can be lifted within the next fortnight.

For some Government advisers, even unlocking partially on June 21st would be going too far. According to SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward, there is a “good argument” for delaying the end of lockdown until a “much higher proportion” of the population has been fully vaccinated (a sentiment recently echoed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock).

He told Today on BBC Radio 4: “It’s still going to be a few weeks yet until we’ve got all of the highly clinically vulnerable double-vaccinated and that will probably coincide with the plans to open up more fully. When we do open up more fully, instead of [cases of the Indian variant] doubling every week, it’s likely to double more frequently than that. I think there is a good argument for caution until we’ve got a much higher proportion double-vaccinated.”

The Times report is worth reading in full.

Government Scientists Want People to Continue Working From Home Indefinitely

The number of people working mainly at home rose dramatically at the beginning of the first lockdown, from 5.7% of workers in early 2020 to 43.1% in April, according to research by Understanding Society. The figure – while now a little lower – remains high and the Government’s scientific advisors would like this to continue indefinitely. The Telegraph has the story.

The latest figures show infection levels are now the lowest they have been for eight months, with just one in 1,180 people in England having Covid…

But Government scientists are understood to be concerned that progress could be undermined if people return to work in significant numbers, increasing social contact. 

They are calling for those who can work from home to continue doing so, saying employers should plan so that staff can stay at home or spend limited time in the office until the threat of the global pandemic recedes. One source said there was no reason to return to an office full-time after June 21st if work could be carried out at home. 

Boris Johnson is expected to set out the next stages in the exit from lockdown next week, with people allowed to mix indoors in groups of up to six or two households, and pubs and restaurants allowed to serve indoors from May 17th.

Under the current timetable, limits on social distancing will be lifted on June 21st, but the Government has yet to set out policies about the return of workers to the office. A decision on whether face masks will be required on public transport has also yet to be taken. 

Modelling produced for the Government suggests people will not go back to pre-pandemic levels of contact with others as restrictions lift.

The latest companies to move their staff to home-working are Google and KPMG. Some Government advisors suggest there is no reason for workers to return to the office after June 21st. Yet, along with questions about lower productivity, working from home is a contributing factor to loneliness which many have suffered from during lockdown. “People have forgotten how to be sociable,” said one worker whose business engagements have changed significantly because of “stay at home” orders.

The Telegraph report is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Perhaps the Government’s scientific advisers viewed the December 2020 cover of the New Yorker magazine as a guide to how life should be lived, rather than as a warning.