Business is discovering the cost of home working

What is the Government more concerned about – a second wave or the economy? It’s hard to figure out.

It almost beggars belief that more than six months after the pandemic began, ministers have yet to find ways of better reconciling the two.

Instead, they pull both ways. From tax and spend to return to work, quarantine and lockdown, mixed messaging and confusion remain the order of the day.

Go back to the office and help save the economy, the Government urges, but how can this be done while social distancing remains in place and ministers warn that crowding together in confined spaces, such as commuter trains, may spark a renewed outbreak?

Much office space is condemned to working at no more than half capacity as long as social distancing is required, and some tower blocks, reliant as they are on transporting workers at speed between floors by elevator, a good deal less. What in any case is the point of coming back to the office if social distancing removes many of the team building benefits of physical interaction?

It is primarily this constraint, not the attractions of home working, that keeps employees away.

The Government cannot have it both ways; it either thinks the pandemic a still clear and present danger to life and the NHS, or it thinks the risks to the economy of continuing as we are the more potent threat.

I’m pretty sure I know which, yet ministers run around like headless chickens, apparently terrified of what their scientific advisers might say, or worse still, the opinion polls, if they engage properly with a back to work strategy.

Instead they act like Wilkins Micawber, vainly hoping that something will turn up to rescue them from a problem largely of their own making. A vaccine would do the trick, they say, or perhaps mass, instant diagnostic testing. That too may save us. Indeed it might, but in the meantime, it is like waiting for Godot. They can’t even get their act together on common-all-garden swab testing; what hope for 20-minute spit tests?

Let the fit, young and healthy work as normal, and the vulnerable make their own choices as to what risks they should take. This has been the obvious solution from the start, yet we have allowed ourselves to be guided by China’s brutalist example of economically crippling lockdown. 

As it is, there is something faintly distasteful about the growing social divide between the largely middle and upper middle class stay at homers, and the massed ranks of generally lower earning “essential” service, distribution, transport, health and construction workers who have been operating normally throughout the pandemic so that the rest of us don’t starve to death while overdosing on Netflix and Zoom.

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