The prime minister has announced that he wants to scrap the work-from-home order later this month, as he moves to end England’s remaining coronavirus restrictions.
But businesses have called for urgent clarity on what they will need to do to keep staff and customers safe, saying the “logistical headache” they face has not disappeared.
At a news conference on Monday, Boris Johnson said: “The government is no longer telling people it is necessary that they should work from home – the rest is really for employees and employers to work out for themselves.
“That change has been made possible by the success of the vaccine rollout.
“The overwhelming proportion of the workforce has had two jabs, so we’re talking about a huge wall of immunity.”
So far, 86% of UK adults have received at least one vaccine dose and 64% are fully vaccinated, with the government aiming to give everyone over 18 both shots by mid-September.
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Shevaun Haviland, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses were still lacking the “full picture they desperately need to plan for unlocking”.
“Much remains in the balance, firms do not yet know the future of self-isolation rules, if testing will remain free for them, or when international travel will open up effectively,” she said.
“Without clear guidance for businesses around the new proposals, there could be real uncertainty on how they should operate going forward and what they should be doing to keep staff and their customers safe.
“This could lead to a fractured, patchwork approach with very different positions being taken by many businesses, across many locations. That, in turn, could severely undermine the public’s trust in reopening.
“All of this means the huge logistical headache firms face around reopening hasn’t disappeared and there remains a real risk of damage to business confidence.”
Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation Of Small Businesses, added: “Any celebrations will be on hold until we know what new operating rules will look like – we urgently need clarity.
“Small firms have a host of questions they need answering in the next 14 days, among them: is this intervention confirmation enough to buy stock and get staff in place for the 19th?
“What do I say to staff worried about the safety of public transport? Where do I stand if I lift all restrictions at my business and someone contracts COVID-19 on site? Do I tell staff the office is safe to reopen?
“How will the rules around schooling and childcare change? What police protection will there be for me if I ask customers to follow safety procedures and they refuse? What infrastructure, like testing, will be kept in place for businesses?”
Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, said retailers would wait for the government’s final decision on restrictions, expected on 12 July.
He added: “It will take consumers and businesses time to adjust and it is vital that government messaging is clear and consistent so that businesses and consumers easily understand what is expected of them both legally and individually.”
In May, the Office for National Statistics said 25.9% – or 8.4 million people – were completing duties from their place of residence at some point in the week they were spoken to.
The figure compares with 12.4% in 2019, before the pandemic.
Should the fourth step of the roadmap go ahead, other changes will include removal of the “one metre-plus” rule in almost all settings (apart from specific places such as airports) and allowing all remaining businesses – such as nightclubs – to reopen.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said the pandemic had “decimated” nightclubs, with around 40% no longer in business.
He added: “We’re very confident that we can put the right measures in place and I think we’ve got some responsible operators out there who will deliver those to safeguard staff and customers coming into the premises.”
He said these measures included hand sanitation, managing the flow of people, and ventilation, something he said the industry had been looking at since before the pandemic.
“We still need support – we need support from the customers, we need support from the government to ensure we can survive and rebuild and regenerate and be at the strength we were at prior to the pandemic.”
Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for clarity on the rules regarding face masks on London’s transport network, as confidence in public transport is “key to both commuter and visitor return to London”.
“Business also needs to hear an update from government regarding the future of the Test and Trace system, and self-isolation support.
“Many people are still not fully vaccinated at this point, and we also cannot be complacent regarding potential emergence of variants, or indeed future viruses.”
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said the end of restrictions would be “celebrated” by those in the industry, adding that 19 June could be the first time in 16 months that many would be able to look at breaking even and moving towards profitability.
“It will still be a long road back for businesses that have been forced to take on debt just to survive, especially with the reintroduction of business rates payments,” she said.
“Nevertheless, this is a critical move that will unleash a sector that is eager to play its part in the wider national recovery, to repay the support afforded it by the government.”