But as the country enters a new stage in its coronavirus response and cases tick upwards at an alarming rate, the political back-and-forth is entering a new arena: the lounges, bedrooms and studies of millions of British workers.
“The economy needs to have people back at work,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC this week.
The tone is even sharper in much of the British media. “Ghost town Britain HAS to get back to work and Boris Johnson must lead the way,” read the headline of a newspaper column by Carolyn Fairbairn, head of the Confederation of British Industry.
Shelly Asquith, the Health, Safety & Wellbeing Policy Officer at the TUC, the congress of UK labor unions, describes the national discussion of returning to work as a blame game.
“There’s been a concerted effort from some sections of the media to make out that a lot of people who are working from home aren’t really working,” she told CNN Business. “And there’s a lack of understanding of how hard people have been working in lockdown.”
“Some of the rhetoric that has been employed in recent times … is atrocious,” added Phil Taylor, who is conducting research into experiences of homeworking for the Institute of Employment Rights, saying it “detracts attention away from the gross negligence of the government over many months.”
“There’s lives at stake here,” Taylor told CNN Business. “If people don’t wish to go back to the office, they shouldn’t be blamed for it all.”
‘It’s incredibly irresponsible’
Despite weeks of effort from government ministers, the complexities of Britain’s return to the office could best be summed up by the response to a commercial for a cleaning detergent last week.
A widely-panned advert for cleaning agent Dettol on London’s underground network went viral for its wayward list of all the “little things we love” about the office — like “carrying a handbag,” “taking a lift” and “accidentally replying-all.”
“Thank you, Dettol, for convincing me to work from home forever,” responded historian Alex von Tunzelmann, encapsulating the thoughts of many online commentators.
“If anything it just served as a reminder to everybody of why they do want to keep working from home,” added Asquith.
“Wherever workers are in relatively close proximity to each other, the likelihood is these infections will take place,” Taylor said, citing multiple cases of call centers across the country reopening, only to shut amid a spike in infections.
Taylor’s research makes “absolutely clear that people were identifying serious problems with the working environment,” he said. “The occupational density of existing office spaces is such that it is almost impossible to maintain effective social distancing.”
Concerns over the economy lie at the heart of the conundrum — while homeworking has boosted local, residential high streets, city centers remain virtually deserted compared to last year, Mike Cherry, the national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, told CNN Business. High street food and coffee chains have been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, after footfall on busy streets dropped immediately and subsequently failed to return to pre-lockdown levels.
A paradigm shift in the way Brits work
The pandemic has also unleashed a new era of homeworking that many employees simply don’t want to give up — and that is shaping up to be a major problem for the government.
“One of the things that’s happened as a result of this lockdown is that people have found they have places where they can work easily and with less distractions — and there are advantages to working from home,” said Paul Bernal, whose tweet criticizing a Daily Mail front page on the issue went viral last week.
“More people have recognized that than I expected, and than the government expected,” he told CNN Business.
Bernal is now one of countless workers at odds with the government’s messaging, and hoping for more flexible arrangements in the future.
He contested any suggestion that productivity is affected. “I’ve produced a hell of a lot while I’ve been locked down — probably more than before,” he said.
“It feels very hypocritical of the government and media that they want people to take risks for other people’s benefits, not for their own,” he added. “The suggestion that somehow we’re being selfish by choosing to work from home, and that we should be sacrificing ourselves to the greater good — but what is the greater good here?
“Getting a good work-life balance is actually the greater good.”
That sentiment is certain to provide trouble for officials as they seek to usher people back into cities and towns on a daily basis.
Those new ways of thinking about work have hardly been discussed in Britain — but for many labor unions and workers, it’s time they were.
And as tensions between the two camps build, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that spending five days a week in the office will ever be the norm in the United Kingdom again. “It’s time for a paradigm shift in the way that people work,” said Taylor at the Institute of Employment Rights.