News, Culture & Society

Britons return to work on first Monday after WFH order was axed

Commuters headed back into the office today on the first Monday morning since working from home guidance was lifted after Boris Johnson told government departments to prepare staff for a return to the workplace.

Photographs showed the Jubilee line on the London Underground looking busy as the morning rush hour got underway at 7am, with passengers also packing platforms waiting for Overground trains at Canada Water station.

London Victoria and London Bridge also looked busy this morning – although this was a contrast to the empty streets of Westminster at a similar time which suggested many civil servants are continuing to work from home.

And congestion data today showed the level during the Monday morning rush hour in London was actually down on the same time last week, at 68 per cent for 8am to 9am today compared to 69 per cent last Monday.

The TomTom figures also showed today was the second quietest day on London’s roads in the past six weekdays, but it was roughly in line with the 69 per cent on December 6 – the last Monday before WFH guidance came in. 

Birmingham was also quieter today from 8am to 9am compared to last Monday – at 56 per cent today, down from 67 per cent. Congestion was, however, up week-on-week in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle. 

The figures for the 8am to 9am slot in London were in contrast to the 7am and 8am period which was at 46 per cent today, up from 44 per cent at the same time last week and the highest on a Monday since December 6. 

It comes amid fresh attempts to end the working-from-home culture in Whitehall by ordering employees to get back to their desks after the Prime Minister ended the working from home guidance last Wednesday.

Union leaders have branded the proposals ‘reckless’, and senior officials vowed to keep a large number of their staff working from home permanently with only a tiny minority of civil servants at their desks. 

The final Plan B restrictions of Covid passports for larger venues and face masks in indoor areas will both be lifted on Thursday – but the latter will remain in place on Transport for London trains as a ‘condition of carriage’.

It means Tube passengers can no longer be fined for not wearing a mask, but can be denied entry. London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted: ‘Just a reminder to those travelling back into the office today—it’s still mandatory to wear a mask on all TfL services unless you’re exempt. If you’re using public transport, respect the rules. Wear your mask.’ 

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph revealed concerns that the return to the office could be held up by reduced train services with 21 of the UK’s 28 rail operators on an ‘amended timetable’ or having halted their trains altogether.

Some 13 networks including Avanti West Coast, South Western Railway, CrossCounty and Great Western Railway are running reduced services ‘until further notice’ while the Gatwick Express is completely suspended.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, told of a ‘serious danger that temporary arrangements to cope with the pandemic are going to become ‘baked in and institutionalised’ if operators continue to cut services.

Also this morning, there was disruption on London Overground services due a fault on a train at Highbury and Islington station, while a points failure at Wimbledon was causing disruption to journeys in South London.

Elsewhere, services in Wales were affected by a points failure between Cardiff Central and Radyr via Ninian Park, while commuters in the West Midlands were delayed by an object caught on the electric wires at Tame Bridge Parkway. In Scotland, a fault with the signalling system at Inverness was resulting in delays of up to 30 minutes.

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

A nearly-empty Parliament Street in Westminster at about 9am this morning, suggesting many civil servants are still WFH

A nearly-empty Parliament Street in Westminster at about 9am this morning, suggesting many civil servants are still WFH 

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Great George Street in Westminster at about 9am today as people still work from home despite guidance being dropped

Great George Street in Westminster at about 9am today as people still work from home despite guidance being dropped

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Victoria Street in Westminster appears to be quiet at about 9am this morning despite WFH guidance being dropped

Victoria Street in Westminster appears to be quiet at about 9am this morning despite WFH guidance being dropped 

Commuters walk down an escalator on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters walk down an escalator on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

A quiet Whitehall in Westminster at about 9am this morning as many people continue to work from home

A quiet Whitehall in Westminster at about 9am this morning as many people continue to work from home

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Company, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that sales at his pubs were ‘almost non-existent’ at the start of January but had been building back to normal levels over the past ten days. 

Speaking about more people returning to the office, Mr Watson said: ‘I think we’ve got to remember about people going back to the office, it’s not just to help the hospitality industry, it’s to help everyone in the office.

‘Every junior staff needs a mentor, every junior staff needs to be able to go to someone in the office to help with their roles, and they can’t really do that from home. I think it builds up that culture within a business as well.

‘I think you can bring in a bit of flexibility to the office-work life, but it’s very important for office workers’ mental wellbeing as well to be back in the office and working alongside their colleagues.’ 

But Paul Novak, deputy general secretary at the Trades Union Congress, said the ‘language’ surrounding the return to work from the Government had been ‘unhelpful’.  

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

The Treasury building on Horse Guards Parade in Westminster at about 9am today as only a handful of people walk outside

The Treasury building on Horse Guards Parade in Westminster at about 9am today as only a handful of people walk outside

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

He told BBC Radio 4: ‘It is important to remember that millions of people have been working in the workplaces as normal during the pandemic, if you work in a supermarket, or a care home or in a factory.

Omicron restrictions are eased in Scotland 

The final restrictions put in place in response to the Omicron variant sweeping across Scotland were eased from today.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced last week nightclubs would be able to reopen, while the caps on indoor events, table service requirements for venues selling alcohol and social distancing will also be removed.

The measures were put in place in December – along with a maximum capacity in outdoor events of 500, which was eased last Monday as the new variant caused a spike in cases – eventually peaking at more than 20,000 in the first days of 2022.

However, infections started to dip faster than expected, never reaching the worst case scenario the Scottish Government envisaged as possible – with projections suggesting 50,000 people could be infected daily with the new variant at the peak of the wave.

But the requirements for face coverings and self-isolation will remain for the foreseeable future.

‘But there will be significant numbers of people starting to return to the office from this week, and I think what’s really important actually is rather than blanket mandates or unhelpful language about shirkers getting back to the office, employers have sensible conversations with their staff about how that return will happen, over what timescale, people’s preferred patterns of working and crucially what can employers do to give people confidence that their workplace is Covid secure and is as safe as possible.’

The return to work comes after it emerged civil servants claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds for home office equipment after the remote working guidance was scrapped last year.

Taxpayers paid out almost £730,000 in expenses between July 19 and early December – when ministers were no longer asking staff to avoid the office.

Now figures released under freedom of information laws lay bare the extent of home working last year when curbs had been relaxed.

HMRC spent more than £540,000 on 7,566 home office equipment expenses claims, while the Cabinet Office paid out more than £100,000.

And the Department of Health spent £50,000 while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs paid £23,000.

Others refused to reveal how much they had spent on office equipment expenses claims, citing cost grounds. 

The total of those that provided figures was around £729,000.

Ministers removed the guidance to work from home on July 19 last year but reinstated it on December 8 to tackle the spread of Omicron.

A government spokesman said: ‘Departments have the flexibility to make their own decisions on individual working arrangements in order to meet their staff requirements.’

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters travel on the Jubilee line on the London Underground network at about 7am this morning

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Commuters wait to board a London Overground at Canada Water station in South East London at about 7am today

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

Rail commuters return to the office at London Victoria train station just before 8am this morning

HMRC said it would make ‘no apology for ensuring that our colleagues have the equipment which they need to deliver for the UK and our customers’. 

Airline bosses call for end to Covid travel rules 

The chief executives of the UK’s largest airlines have written to the Government to demand an end to coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

In the letter, they ask that restriction-free travel is restored ‘at the very least’ for those who are fully vaccinated. They say that Omicron is in retreat and evidence shows that travel restrictions have a ‘limited effect’ in preventing the spread of Covid-19.

The UK Government was already due to review travel requirements for England next week. The letter is signed by the heads of Ryanair, Easyjet, Loganair, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Jet2, as well as the chief executives of holiday travel group Tui and trade body Airlines UK. It contains three key demands:

  • Restriction free travel for all travellers or at the very least those who are fully vaccinated;
  • The targeted and transparent use of red lists without universal testing or hotel quarantines;
  • That the Government rules out the use of border closures and flight bans in response to future variants of concern.

Meanwhile, Nadhim Zahawi said today that it was the ‘right decision’ to remove the guideline for pupils in England to wear face coverings in classrooms.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, the Education Secretary said: ‘I trust headteachers to do the right thing, I work very closely with them and I’m proud of that – I work very closely with directors of public health.

‘Headteachers and teachers will agree that wearing masks in classrooms actually causes a communication challenge and a learning challenge, which is why I didn’t want them to be in the classroom a day longer than necessary.

‘When the scientists told us that the peak had been reached on Omicron – and we are seeing a plateauing and a real reduction, for example, in ICU numbers – then it is the right decision we made to take that guideline away.’

Asked whether there would be any sanctions for headteachers who continue to mandate mask-wearing in classrooms, he replied: ‘No, I will work with headteachers to support them where we can.’

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab urged NHS staff in England who have not had their mandatory Covid-19 vaccines to do so amid calls for the deadline to be delayed.

Mr Raab played down suggestions the April 1 deadline could be postponed while NHS representatives have warned the policy could force thousands of frontline workers to leave their roles at a time when patient demand is high. 

Frontline staff in England must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 with two jabs by April 1 – meaning they must have had their first dose by February 3.

Mr Raab argued that the deadline does not need postponing because the NHS recruitment drive since 2020 has improved the service’s ‘resilience’.

And Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has said he would not ‘rule out’ recruiting workers who lose their jobs in England.

The Department for Health and Social Care’s (DHSC’s) impact assessment warns 73,000 NHS staff in England could be lost. 

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