Full return to offices delayed until next spring, says Varadkar

Tánaiste says a ‘staggered and phased’ return to offices is still possible

The full return to offices is being delayed until next spring in response to rising Covid-19 cases

The full return to offices is being delayed until next spring in response to rising Covid-19 cases

 

The full return to offices is being delayed until next spring in response to rising Covid-19 cases, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

Setting out changes to the Government’s planned lifting of pandemic restrictions, Mr Varadkar said “a staggered and phased return to the office” was still possible but a full return to offices – “as we knew them”– would not happen until the spring of 2022.

Under the previous reopening plan announced at the end of August, the Government planned to remove the requirement to work from home from October 22nd permitting workers to return to workplaces where they had worked from home on a phased and cautious basis.

The National Public Health Emergency Team advised the Government that the return to the workplace should continue on a “phased and cautious basis” but recommended that “all who can work from home should continue to do so”.

“A staggered and phased return to the office is possible so people going back to the office for a specific business purpose like a meeting or training, for example, or inductions, that is allowed,” said Mr Varadkar.

“Certainly people who can work from home and want to continue to work from home, their employer should facilitate that.’

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment said there had been people “working from home with a laptop on a bed for 18 months now” and that they really wanted to return to the office.

“If that can be facilitated, if they can be in an office on their own or in an office where they are socially distanced from other people, that should be facilitated too,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said the Government would be meeting trade unions and employer groups on Tuesday to update work safety protocols over the coming days.

Neil McDonnell, chief executive of small and mid-sized business group, ISME, said that most businesses were not planning a full return to the office until next spring.

“We are still on the trajectory to reopen, as already set, albeit cautiously and in a blended fashion rather than a full reopening,” he said. “There are very few employers who were planning a full return to the office.”

He said that the types of businesses that have raised concerns about the pace to a full return included those in engineering, architecture and IT involved in team working.

“That stuff is very hard to execute from home but it is still possible,” said Mr McDonnell.

Danny McCoy, chief executive of business group Ibec, said businesses must continue to receive “necessary financial supports to ensure that they remain viable” as some restrictions remain.

Many sectors will continue to face “difficult trading challenges in the weeks and months ahead,” he said.

Sven Spollen Behrens, director of the Small Firms Association, said that it was “not appropriate” to taper off State fiscal supports in light of the delayed reopening.

Many businesses had developed extensive plans to open fully over the October Bank Holiday weekend with money paid to suppliers and staff rostered, he said.

“Return to offices on a staggered basis is well advanced and must continue in line with previously laid out criteria,” he said.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Patricia King said the Government’s message to employers needed to clearly state that physical attendance in the workplace “must continue to be on a phased and cautious basis for specific business requirements.”

“Working from home has not resulted in reduced productivity for employers,” she said. “Continuing with the staggered and phased return to the office is the right decision given the current levels of transmission and hospitalisation, and the strain our healthcare workforce is under after 20 months of incessant demand on them.”

Nphet cautioned in its letter to Government that public health restrictions may have to be reintroduced if the newly recommended measures did not suppress the spread of the virus.

It stressed the importance of employers encouraging workers to self-isolate if they are showing symptoms of Covid-19 and said employees should not be disincentivised by employers if they identify themselves as symptomatic and have to stay at home.

Home-working had played “a very important role” in containing the spread of Covid-19 throughout the pandemic, Nphet said.

It said there were 19 workplace Covid-19 outbreaks reported in the latest weekly figures, including five in food or meat production facilities and four in the construction sector.