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The attempt to put the onus for a return to the office on employers is all very well, but the main issue is lack of confidence in safety measures which are out of their control – namely, the lack of enforcement of safety measures on public transport, even now with few people back.
So should we all head back to the office? Boris Johnson seems to be suggesting that is a good idea, but rather than give any clear guidance he’s leaving it up to employers to decide, similar to furlough where employees who cannot work due to childcare availability have no fallback if their employer says no, except annual leave [often exhausted after months of pandemic] or unaffordable, unpaid leave.
Leaving aside the childcare issues of returning to the office, moves to get people ‘back to normal’ are often supported by statements about how safe public transport is. The problem is that people don’t believe it, especially in the big cities, because they know how crowded it gets in ‘normal’ times and that the concept of social distancing is an impossibility in any situation approaching ‘normality’.
We went on the tube on Friday. There was hardly anyone on it, given it was rush hour. Yet even among those few people who were a handful were not wearing masks. One maskless guy was shouting down his phone and almost inviting people to take him on. Some people are wearing masks, but not over their noses, which kind of defeats the purpose. At Holborn we got on the tube on the way back and a person without a mask walked straight past a Tube employee without any problem. There were more maskless people coming up the escalator.
However clean the tube is it is the people on it who are the problem when it comes to infection. How can anyone have confidence in using it if more people are encouraged – or forced – back on? If you are going to have these policies and if you want to inspire confidence don’t you have to actually enforce them? Maybe there are not enough staff due to the cutbacks, maybe there is a belief that enforcement doesn’t work and just antagonises people, maybe it just isn’t considered a priority [until infections start going back up]…
But for people who are anxious – which is a lot of us – it does make a difference. The current situation is not something we have ever experienced before. Confidence and trust are absolutely central. The mixed-message, laissez-faire attitude doesn’t wash with a lot of people at a time of pandemic, yet by handing it over to employers to decide what is safe and abdicating responsibility, it is likely that many people won’t have much choice in the matter. Indeed many don’t already because they can’t work from home, but adding more people into the mix is surely only going to make things much worse.