Chief executives were on Tuesday scrambling to decide whether to press on with back-to-the-office plans, as the Government told workers to stay at home.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said people in England should work from home “if they can” to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to press home the message in an address to the nation tonight.
The move is a hammer blow for businesses that rely on trade from office workers, and landlords keen to boost office occupancy. It also plays havoc with corporate giants’ carefully devised back-to-work plans.
Landlords told the Standard occupancy levels had been creeping up to around 30% in September, but that could now slide back.
Gerald Kaye, chief executive of London offices landlord Helical, said: “It is deeply disappointing that the government is now going back on its advice to return to work in the office. It ignores the need of those struggling with the pressures of working from home and particularly young people.”
British Chamber of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said: “Ministers must emphasise today that businesses that have worked so hard to become Covid-secure can remain open and keep trading safely.
“This is precisely why businesses have relied on discussions with their employees — rather than Government advice — to determine the pace and scale of any return to the workplace. Government’s job is to get the basics right: testing, transport, schools, childcare.”
IoD director of policy Roger Barker said: “Controlling the spread of the virus is the main priority, but a return to restrictions will inevitably have an impact on many sectors of the economy. It’s vital the government adapts its plans for business support in light of this, particularly as some key measures are set to end soon.”
Meanwhile, Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey added somewhat to the state of confusion by backtracking on the end of the furlough scheme.
He had previously said it should close as planned, but now doesn’t want “to tie the Chancellor’s” hands noting it is “a very fast-evolving world”. That suggests he could back a targeted extension of furlough in certain industries most hit by the virus.
Bailey, speaking at a BCC webinar, also backed a return of workers to offices in the medium term.
“I’d be amazed if we all went back to exactly as we were before Covid. But I don’t think it is possible to retain a totally remote working policy,” he said.
He expressed sympathy for new graduates just starting at the Bank. “It is all right for those of us who have known our colleagues for years. But there are people who don’t know anybody, it is tough (for them).”