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End of remote work? UK government encourages 'safe' return to office

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A man takes part in a video conference as he works from home, on May 14, 2020 in Vertou, outside Nantes
A man takes part in a video conference as he works from home, on May 14, 2020 in Vertou, outside Nantes   -   Copyright  Loic VENANCE / AFP
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The UK government is cautiously encouraging people to return to office following several months of remote work for many due to to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the country's Office for National Statistics, 46.6% of people in the UK did some work from home in April, with levels over 57% in London.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has ruled out extending a government program for furloughed workers beyond October, while the government is reportedly planning a media campaign for next week to encourage employers show their staff what they've done to provide a safe return to work.

It comes amid concerns that the shift to working from home is hurting coffee bars, restaurants and other businesses beyond repair.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that office closures are taking a wide toll on the economy as traffic plunges at shops that rely on walk-in business.

Sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger was the latest to announce cuts, as it plans to slash about 2,800 jobs across the country after a 60% drop in sales.

Authorities think that remote-work is also having an impact on mental health, particularly that of young people.

“I think there’s a limit, just in human terms, to remote working,″ Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC on Friday.

“For many people’s mental health, it is important to return to a safe workplace. So that’s why workplaces are being made COVID secure over the summer, and for a lot of people it will be the right time to return".

But many workers are reluctant to return to the office with COVID-19 cases on the rise again and Britain already having the highest confirmed virus death toll in Europe at over 41,560 people.

The government recorded 1,522 new daily infections on Thursday, up from a low of 367 on July 12.

Unions are urging employers to be flexible and recognize that the world of work has changed.

Dave Penman, general secretary of FDA, the union that represents top civil servants, said government ministers are sounding like “dinosaurs.”

“Millions of employees are working from home very successfully whilst employers are recognizing that the world of work has changed and are embracing it,” he said in a tweet. “The genie won’t fit back in the bottle, best not try.”

Alison Rose, chief executive of NatWest Group, described such a model last month.

“We’re going to be quite careful and thoughtful about how we bring people back into offices and evolve office space,'' she said. “What we’ll see is a bit more of a hybrid working model, and that’s something we’ll work on very carefully.''

More than 50,000 staff members of NatWest Group will keep working from home into 2021.