The Irish Times view on reopening: now is the time to start planning

It looks unlikely that offices will return to anything like their pre-Covid-19 situation, with flexible working now a reality

Businesses need to start getting some clarity on how and when they may reopen. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The Government is due to finalise its latest reopening plan later this week, for publication on August 31st. A key issue it faces is what to tell businesses about reopening offices and other settings where staff have been working from home. A few weeks ago Ministers had been suggesting that the direction to work from home where possible would end in early September. Given the rise in infection numbers since, and the transmissibility of the Delta variant, this now looks unlikely. But businesses do need to start getting some clarity, given the decisions ahead and the planning needed on how workplaces will operate.

The decision on when employers should be advised to start reopening is understandably difficult. If forecasts of the current wave of infection peaking in September prove correct, then there may be an opportunity to begin reopening later in the autumn. The Government has been keen to see offices reopening to help the revival of city centres, but public health advice is likely to be cautious, given recent trends.

However, even if the date remains uncertain, it is important to start scoping out how this might work, in consultation with employers, trade unions and others. This is a complex process requiring planning and given that reopening is likely still a while away, now – and not a few days before it is due to happen – is the time to do it.

The issues concerned are tied up with the wider question of the future of working and how much work will be office-based. If the guidance to companies is, for example, that two-metre distance is needed between desks – at least for now – then this immediately restricts the numbers that can work in many offices. Clear guidelines are also needed on general protocols in the workplace – everything from canteens to what happens in an office space if one employee is ill.

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Decisions are also needed on whether testing is needed in offices and how this should work. And the most thorny issue of all will be vaccination. As things stand, the Data Protection Commissioner has only given leeway to healthcare employers to ask the vaccination status of employees.

Many other employers are asking how they can keep staff safe if they don’t know who has been vaccinated, though legal advice is that this information is private to the employee.

These are delicate issues requiring input from employers and employee representatives. Vaccination is voluntary, but a key factor is likely to be pressure from employees who want to remain safe in their workplace.

It looks unlikely that offices will return to anything like their pre-Covid-19 situation, with flexible working now a reality. However, we do need to start planning for the workplace of the future.

The Government, as policymaker but also as the State’s largest employer, has a key role to play here.