David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Some months ago, I made the observation on this site that there was a danger that the Government’s then message – ‘stay at home’ – might work too well. Given that the Government is launching a campaign to get us back in our offices, it looks as if they have reached the same conclusion. By international standards, far fewer of us have returned to our place of work and, as a consequence, businesses that depend upon the custom of office-workers are suffering terribly. In the view of the Government, as we inch back to some kind of normality, now is the time for us to start to go back to the office.
This is understandable. For some people, working from home is a miserable experience and bad for their mental health. Creating an environment where people have the opportunity to go to work is to be welcomed. But there are five reasons why I would urge a degree of caution in the messaging.
First, and perhaps most fundamentally, it is not obvious why a return to work will not increase the infection rate. The UK has seen a lower return to work than other countries but it has also seen a smaller increase in infections (so far). Cramming people into trains and then into offices will increase social interaction and, therefore, the opportunity for the virus to spread. Given that the Prime Minister, Health Secretary, Cabinet Secretary, Chief Medical Officer and half of Whitehall appear to have caught the virus in the office, I do not think this concern can be dismissed.
Other activities, such as getting the schools back, are more important than getting those who can work from home to work in the office. So, in the event of a second wave, any messages about getting back to work will need to be reversed.
We must not forget that what really drives behaviour is the perception of the health risks. Of course, the Government can help inform the public of the real risks but, fundamentally, people will be happier to return to the office if they think it is safe. So my second point is that demonstrating we have the virus under control – with an effective test, trace and isolate system that identifies and suppresses local outbreaks – will count a lot more than exhortations to get into the office.
Third, the decision of where someone works is principally one to be worked out between employer and employee. Some employers are keen to get their staff back; some employees are desperate to return to the office. But that is not always the case and, as Matt Hancock has said in the context of the Department of Health, his concern is that his staff can do the job. His experience, and the experience of many employers, is that they can.
We do not live in a command economy and the man or woman in Whitehall (or Godalming or Hitchin or wherever it is they might live and, currently, work), doesn’t necessarily know best. It is particularly unhelpful if Ministers give the impression that working from home is a step in the direction of being made redundant. This is neither true nor helpful to businesses who have sought to reassure their employees.
What appears to be driving the Government’s message is concern about businesses located in city centres. Although entirely understandable, my fourth point is that we also have to face the reality that the world of work is changing. We are likely to see a structural change with people spending more time at home (and spending more money close to home) and spending less time and money in cities. Trying to push-back against a long term change in consumer preferences will only preserve economic inefficiencies. More people are going to mix working in the office with working from home and our retail and hospitality sectors are going to have to adjust.
And, finally, giving the impression that the Government thinks that the very many people who want to work from home are lazy and unpatriotic does not strike me as obviously good politics.
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The row over the Last Night of the Proms has probably come as a bit of a relief to the Government. Speaking as a metropolitan, liberal, remoaner type, attempts at cancelling the lyrics of Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory results in me getting in touch with my inner Nigel Farage (to be fair, we are not in regular contact).
It is hard to believe that anyone really takes offence at the lyrics, but rather that a patriotic celebration of this country should not even be permitted. It is an attitude that infuriates large numbers of people, feeds into a cultural backlash and does nothing to help the disadvantaged.
As an event, it is not to everybody’s taste. I can see why people might find the whole occasion anachronistic, absurd and a bit naff, but surely that is the essence of good Saturday evening telly? After all, the same could be said of Eurovision and Strictly.
If the Last Night of the Proms is too jingoistic for your tastes, the solution is to watch something else. Don’t spoil the innocent fun for the rest of us.
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Brexit has rumbled on. I have always been a bit of a pessimist as to whether a deal would be reached and, after an apparently acrimonious round of talks earlier this month, the odds of No Deal are increasing.
Both before and after the 2016 referendum, plenty of advocates for Brexit made the case that we would get a very good deal that would mean we would have control over our own laws and excellent access to EU markets. It was argued that anyone who doubted that failed to appreciate how we held all the negotiating cards, especially given the large trading deficit we run with the EU.
When such an offer was not forthcoming, this was blamed on the failure of the May Government to play hardball or the ‘Remainer Parliament’ of 2017-19. Now those impediments have been swept aside and we have a Government that would be prepared to end the transition period without a deal, the EU will presumably accept our demands.
The counter-argument has always been that the EU has certain interests it will be determined to protect, such as the integrity of the Single Market, and considers itself to be better able to withstand the disruption of no deal. Consequently, the threat to walk away was never the bargaining chip some people believed.
In the next few weeks, as the negotiations come to a head, we will find out which interpretation of the EU’s motives and actions – and the efficacy of particular negotiating strategies – will have turned out to be correct. Will the EU cave or not?
This won’t necessarily tell us whether Brexit is a good idea or not, but it will mean that the promises and predictions of politicians and commentators over the last four years or more can be scrutinised in a more informed way. If we get very good access to EU markets and complete regulatory autonomy, I for one will have to admit that I got it wrong. If we do not get that, others are going to have to eat some humble pie.