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Boris Johnson will scrap the government’s advice to “work from home if you can” from August 1 – despite apparent misgivings from official scientists.
The decision in England on whether staff should work from home will instead be in the hands of employers.
The prime minister will drop the advice that states “people who can work from home should continue to do so”, which was designed to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Accompanying the change, the guidelines will be amended in England from today to make clear that “anybody may use public transport” while urging people to “consider using alternative means of transport where they are available”.
He also announced that most remaining leisure centres would be allowed to reopen on August 1, indoor performances with live audiences would be allowed and trials would begin of larger gatherings in places like sports stadiums “with a view to a wider reopening in the autumn”.
Johnson’s road map to recovery came in response to rising concern about the economic impact of people working from home and not spending money in shops, cafes and pubs in city centres.
But the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said on Thursday working from home remained a “perfectly good option” and there was “absolutely no reason” to change the advice.
Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty took part in a cabinet call on Friday morning to discuss the next stage in the government’s coronavirus recovery plan.
The PM’s move came after Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey told Tory MPs at a meeting of the party’s backbench 1922 committee that empty urban centres risk holding back the economic recovery from lockdown.
Johnson stressed that the easing of advice was highly conditional on continued efforts to slow the spread of the virus and that he would not hesitate to “put the brakes on”.
The number of people catching the virus is shrinking by between 1% and 5% a day, the latest figures from the government office for science and the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) show.
The PM said: “Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.
“That could mean, of course, continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees.
“Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following Covid-secure guidelines.
“Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe.”
Johnson also unveiled new powers for local authorities to issue stay-at-home orders, close premises and cancel events as part of the government’s so-called “whack-a-mole” strategy of local lockdowns to halt outbreaks of Covid-19.
He said: “From tomorrow, local authorities will have new powers in their areas.
“They will be able to close specific premises, shut public outdoor spaces and cancel events.
“These powers will enable local authorities to act more quickly in response to outbreaks where speed is paramount.
“Action by local councils will not always be sufficient, so next week we will publish draft regulations on how central government can intervene more effectively at a local level.
“Where justified by the evidence, ministers will be able to close whole sectors or types of premises in an area, introduce local stay-at-home orders, prevent people entering or leaving defined areas, reduce the size of gatherings beyond the national defined rules or restrict transport systems serving local areas.”