But as the country enters a new phase in its coronavirus response and cases increase at an alarming rate, political back and forth is entering a new arena: the living rooms, bedrooms and studios of millions of British workers.
“The economy needs to get people back to work,” Foreign Minister Dominic Raab told the BBC this week.
The tone is even sharper in much of the British media. “Britain’s ghost town MUST get back to work and Boris Johnson must lead the way,” read the headline of a newspaper article by Carolyn Fairbairn, head of the Confederation of British Industry.
Shelly Asquith, head of health, safety and welfare policies at TUC, the UK trade union congress, describes the national discussion on returning to work as a blame game.
“There has been a concerted effort by some sections of the media to understand that many people who work from home don’t really work,” he told CNN Business. “And there is a lack of understanding of how hard people have worked in isolation.”
“Some of the rhetoric that has been employed in recent times … is atrocious,” added Phil Taylor, who is conducting work-at-home experience research for the Institute of Employment Rights, saying it “diverts attention from gross negligence of the government for many months “.
“There are lives at stake here,” Taylor told CNN Business. “If people don’t want to go back to the office, they shouldn’t be blamed for everything.”
“It’s incredibly irresponsible”
Despite weeks of effort by government ministers, the complexity of Britain’s return to office could best be summed up by the response to an advertisement for a cleaning detergent last week.
A widely used advertisement for Dettol cleaning agent on the London Underground network it went viral with its rebellious list of all the “little things we love” in the office – like “carrying a bag”, “taking a ride” and “accidentally answering”.
“Thank you, Dettol, for convincing me to work from home forever,” replied historian Alex von Tunzelmann, summing up the thoughts of many online commentators.
“If anything it just served to remind everyone why they want to continue working from home,” added Asquith.
“Wherever workers are relatively close to each other, these infections are likely to occur,” Taylor said, citing multiple cases of call centers reopening across the country, only to close amid a spike in infections.
Taylor’s research makes it “absolutely clear that people were identifying serious problems with the work environment,” he said. “The employment density of the existing offices is such that it is almost impossible to maintain effective social distancing”.
Concerns for the economy are at the heart of the conundrum: While homework has boosted local and residential streets, city centers remain virtually deserted from last year, Mike Cherry, national president of the Federation, told CNN Business. of Small Businesses. Grocery and coffee chains were particularly affected by the pandemic, after trampling on busy streets immediately eased and subsequently failed to return to pre-lockdown levels.
A paradigm shift in the way the British work
The pandemic has also sparked a new era of homework that many employees simply don’t want to give up – and this is shaping up to be a major problem for the government.
“One of the things that has happened following this lockdown is that people have found that they have places where they can work easily and with fewer distractions – and there are benefits to working from home,” said Paul Bernal, whose tweet criticizes a Daily The front page of the mail on the issue went viral last week.
“More people have recognized this than I expected, and than the government expected,” he told CNN Business.
Bernal is now one of countless workers at variance with government messages and hopes for more flexible arrangements in the future.
He disputed any suggestion that productivity is affected. “I produced a lot while I was locked up, probably more than before,” he said.
“It feels very hypocritical of the government and the media who want people to take risks for the benefits of others, not their own,” he added. “The suggestion that we are somehow selfish by choosing to work from home and that we should sacrifice ourselves for the greater good – but what is the greater good here?
“Getting a good work-life balance is actually the greatest asset.”
This sentiment is sure to create problems for officials who try to bring people back to cities and towns on a daily basis.
Those new ways of thinking about work have barely been discussed in Britain, but for many unions and workers it is time for them to be.
And as tensions between the two camps escalate, it seems increasingly unlikely that spending five days a week in the office will ever be the norm in the UK again. “It’s time for a paradigm shift in the way people work,” said Taylor at the Institute of Employment Rights.