Boris Johnson’s determination to get English workers back into their offices suffered a setback on Thursday when his chief scientific adviser insisted that working from home remained “a perfectly good option”.
Patrick Vallance told MPs that he could see “absolutely no reason” to change official government advice which says: “People who can work from home should continue to do so”.
“Of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do,” He told the Commons science committee. “I think a number of companies think it’s actually not detrimental to productivity.”
Sir Patrick admitted the outcome on coronavirus “has not been good in the UK”. He said the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, which he chairs, had advised going into lockdown on “March 16 or 18”. The full lockdown began on March 23.
In recent days Mr Johnson has urged people in England to return to work if possible to try to revive the country’s stricken economy. Last week he said: “It’s very important that people should be going back to work if they can now.”
The prime minister had been expected by government officials to reinforce his “go back to work if it’s safe to do so” message at a press conference on Friday. “He’s desperate to get people back to work,” said one official.
But Downing Street on Thursday played down the speculation. Instead, the prime minister’s press conference will focus on measures to avoid a renewed coronavirus spike, including an extra £3bn of funding for the National Health Service over the winter.
Mr Johnson is also expected to confirm plans to increase testing capacity to half a million antigen tests a day by the end of October to bolster the NHS test-and-trace scheme.
“The prime minister is clear that now is not the time for complacency and we must make sure our NHS is battle-ready for winter,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
The new funding will allow the NHS to continue using additional private hospital capacity and to maintain the emergency Nightingale hospitals until the end of March.
Mr Johnson is also expected to set out plans for highly targeted “lightning lockdowns” where Covid-19 reappears in the autumn, with officials predicting “new and very targeted powers are on their way”.
Business groups hope Mr Johnson will continue to urge a return to work. They are concerned that cafés, restaurants, bars and pubs will struggle to survive even after reopening this month as people remain at home.
But many companies have already said that they would not encourage many of the workers back until September at the earliest, with some delaying until the end of the year.
Andrew Bailey, Bank of England governor, this week told Tory MPs he was worried that the economic slump would be worsened unless people were encouraged to return to public transport.
Mr Johnson shares that concern and train operators this week started changing their messaging to one of “travelling safely”, replacing a discouragement to travel that has been in place since March.
One senior rail executive told the FT it was going to be a “big job to bring people back”. He added: “We feel the railway has been a bit held back behind other sectors for not necessarily good reasoning in recent weeks”.
Cutting social distancing from two metres to one metre will mean that train capacity can be increased from about 15-20 per cent of normal numbers to up to 45 per cent.
Meanwhile Matt Hancock, health secretary, said that a partial lockdown would continue in Leicester because the infection rate remained high at 119 cases per 100,000 people.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard and Daniel Thomas