Nphet workplace advice puts Government in a bind

Enforcing work from home means taking a backward step even as crowds flock to matches and nightclubs

Companies and colleges have shown they can operate reasonably successfully on a remote basis. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters

Companies and colleges have shown they can operate reasonably successfully on a remote basis. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters

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The advice to both employees and employers in relation to working from home has been less than clear for a few weeks now, but the latest intervention from Nphet underlines the gap between it and the Government on this important issue.

Nphet clearly wants clear guidance – if not a mandate – for people to work from home unless completely necessary to go into the office. The Government would prefer a continuation of the previous fudge, which was presented as a gradual return to the office but was actually surrounded by rules which made this near impossible to do, most notably in relation to social distancing.

So there is a tricky call here for the Government. Reinstating clear guidance to work from home would involve doing what it said it won’t do – going backwards in the reopening plan.

It also raises some other very obvious questions. How can you tell people to stay out of offices if they can still go to nightclubs? Or cram into the Aviva stadium for soccer and rugby internationals?

One answer to this is that companies have shown they can operate reasonably successfully on a remote basis, while closing down, say, nightclubs again means shutting businesses. This is true, but the retreat of the office worker will have a price too on the economies of city and town centres – on thousands of small restaurants, coffee shops and convenience stores which were just starting to see some pick-up in business.

And it will raise the longer-term issue of what the eventual return to work will actually be like and the extent to which many more people will work from home on a more permanent basis.

There are no easy answers, of course, and we have seen the price of acting too late on the virus before. But many businesses will feel that they are now right back at the end of the queue again in terms of a return to any kind of normal operation. And you would have to say that they are right and that any hoped for business boost from our relatively high vaccination rate is not evident.

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