Businesses await green light to get staff back to the office: KPMG, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and JP Morgan braced to bring back workers when WFH advice changes – with some premises just 16% full
- Hospitality bosses want WFH guidance to end with one industry source saying trade is ‘as dead as a dodo’
- Pubs, bars and restaurants in city centres have been ‘obliterated’ by the lack of office workers going out
- Sources at JP Morgan say it will bring more employees back into office if Government changes guidance
- Goldman Sachs has kept offices open but is still asking staff who can ‘work from home effectively’ to do so
Major British firms today insisted they would bring more employees back into the office if the Government’s policy on working from home changes, as hospitality bosses called for the guidance to end – with one industry source saying trade was ‘as dead as a dodo’.
Pubs, bars and restaurants in city centres have been ‘obliterated’ by the lack of office workers going out for lunches, dinners and drinks after work, with many venues not opening this month due to low customer numbers.
But sources at JP Morgan told MailOnline the bank would bring more of its employees back into the office if the Government changes its guidance – and that attendance at its offices in London and Bournemouth is currently at 16 per cent, having been at around 50 per cent before Plan B rules came in when many people were on rotations.
Goldman Sachs has kept its offices in the City of London, Birmingham and Milton Keynes open but continues to ask all staff who can ‘work from home effectively’ to do so, with bosses following Government guidance.
Those continuing to come in to work face a series of in-office health and safety protocols, including a mandatory on-site testing programme and the wearing of masks at all times apart from when seated at their desks.
And HSBC told MailOnline there was no update to its change in guidance for employees last month, which means staff are still being asked to work from home where possible ‘unless there is a business reason to come in’.
Meanwhile KPMG UK said staff are working from home ‘unless they have a business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reason to be in the office’ and it will ‘continue to follow Government advice in relation to the pandemic’.
The insistence from these major companies that they are following Government guidance on working from home suggests that they would bring back more staff into the office if Ministers recommend that it is safe to do so.
MailOnline has also asked a series of other companies for updates on their WFH guidance – including Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Deloitte, BP, British American Tobacco, Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, the London Stock Exchange, London Heathrow Airport, Vodafone, EE, O2 and Merlin Entertainments.
Working from home guidance is among the Plan B restrictions implemented about a month ago – but they could start to be lifted this month, along with legal requirements for masks and Covid passports in certain venues.
Downing Street could lift the restrictions in stages if Omicron cases remain too high to remove them all at once – with some ministers pushing for working from guidance to go first because of the economic impact. It comes as:
- Boris Johnson faced the threat of a police probe after a bombshell leaked email showed his top civil servant invited 100 staff to a ‘BYOB’ bash in Downing Street during the first lockdown;
- The Prime Minister piled pressure on Government scientists to approve a further cut to Covid isolation from seven days to five days;
- The UK Health Security Agency admitted it had issued misleading claims about the way Britain’s rules compare to other countries;
- The boss of London Heathrow Airport said the travel industry will likely not recover from the damage done by coronavirus for a number of years;
- Britons who test positive for Covid with a lateral flow test will have to self-isolate immediately and cannot have a PCR test to confirm their result from today.
Greater Manchester’s night time economy adviser Sacha Lord said the Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the right call by sparing the country from lockdown in the new year.
Shoppers wear face masks on Oxford Street in London yesterday as footfall remains lower than normal in many city centres
Goldman Sachs has kept its City of London offices open (pictured last July) but staff are asked to work from home if they can
Sources at JP Morgan said attendance at its offices in London (pictured in 2013) and Bournemouth is currently at 16 per cent
He called on him to establish a date when staff will be told to head back to offices. Mr Lord said: ‘It is not just pubs, but lunchtime sandwich shops and any retailer people may have gone out to buy bits from at lunchtime.
‘Hospitality needs people and the high streets need people, and when the work from home policy stops the Government needs to encourage people to get back to offices.
What are the working from home policies of big companies in Britain?
- Goldman Sachs: Offices in the City of London, Birmingham and Milton Keynes still open for staff but those who can ‘work from home effectively’ are asked to do so, with bosses following Government guidance.
- JP Morgan: The bank will bring more employees back into the office if the Government changes its rules. Staff attendance at its offices in London and Bournemouth is currently at 16 per cent, having been at around 50 per cent before Plan B rules came in.
- HSBC: Staff still being asked to work from home if possible ‘unless there is a business reason to come in’.
- KMPG: Employees are working from home ‘unless they have a business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reason to be in the office’ and it will ‘continue to follow Government advice in relation to the pandemic’.
‘Boris did the right thing by not implementing any restrictions, but he must now give us a date to work toward to bring people back.’
The British Beer and Pub Association called for a timeline similar to last year’s roadmap so businesses can prepare for customers coming back.
Chief executive Emma McClarkin said: ‘A lot of operators have closed venues in city centres throughout January because of the Government’s messaging on work from home.
‘We need to know when it will come to an end as we are really struggling under the guidance to be viable in towns and city centres.
‘We have also been encouraged by the potential move to a five-day isolation period. We need the message from the Government to change in order to restore consumer confidence.’
The Government’s Plan B measures which include Covid passes and mask wearing will be reviewed on January 26.
But work from home guidance is not backed by legislation and industry body UK Hospitality called for it to be reviewed in the same way.
Chief executive Kate Nicholls said masks and Covid passports have an ‘end date’ and called for the same for working from home.
She said: ‘We need certainty about how we are going to lift the restrictions and how we are going to go forward and live with this virus.
‘We need to drop the work from home guidance as early as we can, but we need a timeline as well.’
She said hospitality businesses in city centres are seeing sales around 50 per cent lower than would be expected, with the drop off in London a devastating 80 per cent.
An Apple Mobility chart shows the number of people requesting directions from the Maps app has dropped in recent weeks
HSBC said its staff are still being asked to work from home where possible ‘unless there is a business reason to come in’
KPMG staff are working from home ‘unless they have a business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reason to be in the office’
And new figures from data provider Springboard showed how severely working from home weighed on footfall in city centres last week.
Retail spending bounces in December despite spread of Omicron
UK retailers posted strong sales last month as shoppers splashed out on bumper Christmas celebrations despite the surge in Covid-19 cases, according to new figures.
The latest BRC-KPMG retail sales monitor revealed that total sales rose 2.1 per cent in the month to January 1 compared with the same period last year.
It added that like-for-like sales were 0.6 per cent higher than the same month last year. The data highlighted that growth was particularly driven by non-food spending, as shoppers spent more on Christmas gifts.
Over the three months to December, non-food retail grew 4.8 per cent, while food sales reported a 0.4 per cent rise.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: ‘Despite the recent Omicron outbreak, retail sales held up through December. Many people chose to shop online rather than travel to nearby high streets and shopping centres.
‘Loungewear was back in fashion, as many pre-empted the possibility of future restrictions. Meanwhile, the return of work-from-home advice and reduction in Christmas social events caused formalwear sales to slow. In the face of rising case numbers and supply-chain issues, people in retail pulled out all the stops to ensure everyone got what they wanted this Christmas.’
However, the figures also showed a slowdown in activity towards the end of the month.
Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, said: ‘Following a strong November, retail sales continued to grow in December increasing by just over 2 per cent compared to 2020, although the spread of the Omicron variant and updated Government guidelines slowed spending during the final weeks of the year.
‘Consumers continued to head to the high street for their festive gifts, determined to secure the presents they wanted and not leaving online deliveries arriving on time to chance. Footwear was the only online category to see mild growth as overall online sales continued to decline, falling by over 8 per cent in December albeit against strong comparators in 2020.’
Footfall in Central London fell by 41.9 per cent last week from pre-pandemic levels and across the UK was 21.8 per cent lower.
Insight director Diane Wehrle said the decline in Central London and other city centres was ‘far greater’ because of the continued shift to working from home.
Jace Tyrell, boss of the West End Company, which represents central London shops and hospitality firms, said businesses ‘desperately need’ a boost. He added that he hopes people will return to offices ‘in the coming weeks’.
Meanwhile Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin said the Government has been too slow to reverse restrictions when it appears they are no longer needed.
He said the Government should already have scrapped its work from home guidance and the longer it goes on the more it will cost taxpayers.
Mr Martin said: ‘The government has been quick to lock down or add restrictions- but slow to reverse when the information they’ve acted on is proven to be incorrect or excessively pessimistic.
‘The slow reversal punishes pubs and restaurants, which are now often loss-making, but it punishes the public purse even more- for every one pound of profit the pub industry loses the taxpayer loses ten through lost VAT, excise duties and other taxes.’
Goldman Sachs issued the following note to staff when the working from home guidance changed last month, saying: ‘As you will be aware, the UK government has announced the implementation of Plan B in England in response to the spread of the Omicron variant.
‘For those of you who want to make continued use of the office, Plumtree Court, as well as our Birmingham and Milton Keynes offices, will remain open and available in line with government guidance and our own health and safety measures. However, those of you who are able to work from home effectively should do so from Monday, 13 December.
‘For those continuing to come in, all in-office health and safety protocols will remain in place, including the mandatory on-site testing programme and the wearing of masks at all times apart from when seated at your desks.’
And a KPMG UK spokesman said: ‘The health and wellbeing of our colleagues remains our key priority and we continue to stringently follow the latest government advice in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, both nationally and regionally.
‘We have advised colleagues that from Monday 13 December, all colleagues should work from home except for those who have business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reasons to be in the office. Our offices will be open for those who need them.
‘Only business-critical meetings with clients or audited entities should take place in person and only at COVID-secure KPMG offices or client sites.
‘Our people will continue to use our UK Return App – a risk assessment that ensures our people are in a safe position to return and are comfortable doing so. This also captures visits to client or third-party sites.
‘If colleagues are attending the office for a business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reason, we ask them to wear a face covering in lifts, washrooms and other enclosed spaces to protect themselves and others.’
Also this week, Michael Gove said Britain was moving towards a situation where it could ‘live with Covid’.
UK health chiefs say recommended Covid isolation is one day shorter in US
Calls are growing to cut the number of days a person should isolate with Covid, as health officials clarified the recommended quarantine period is shorter in the US than in the UK.
Boris Johnson has said he would ‘act according to the science’ on potentially reducing the time period to five days, a measure which could help deal with staff absences across the economy and public services.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has previously said the isolation period was effectively the same in both the UK and the US, but it has now updated a blog post on the subject clarifying the discrepancy in relation to the starting point for isolation.
The UK health body acknowledged that while here the advice is to isolate for at least six full days, in the US people are asked to isolate for five full days. But the agency said it believes people staying in isolation until they get two negative lateral flow results on days six and seven remains ‘the optimal approach at present’.
The Prime Minister has been facing calls from MPs and business chiefs to follow suit in the UK in order to help ease staff absences across the economy and public services. The isolation period has already been cut from 10 days to seven, and yesterday his official spokesman said ‘if it is possible to go further then we will do so’.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is among ministers keen on the economic benefits of reducing the period to five days, according to the Daily Telegraph, while Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has suggested the move could help ease staffing problems.
Mr Gove, who has consistently argued for the toughest restrictions, yesterday warned that there were ‘difficult weeks ahead’ for the NHS as the virus surges outside London.
But he said there would be ‘better times ahead’ once the current surge in cases has passed. ‘There are other coronaviruses which are endemic and with which we live – viruses tend to develop in a way whereby they become less harmful but more widespread,’ he said.
‘So, guided by the science, we can look to the progressive lifting of restrictions and, I think for all of us, the sooner the better. But we have got to keep the NHS safe.’
Mr Gove, who helped persuade Boris Johnson to impose Plan B, admitted he had been wrong to push for even tighter restrictions over Christmas.
He acknowledged he had been ‘at the more cautious end of the spectrum’ and said the PM had been right to overrule him. ‘His judgment has been vindicated,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘He argued publicly that we would be able to get through this with the booster campaign.’
Downing Street yesterday played down expectations the PM is poised to publish a Covid exit strategy, which could include winding up the test-and-trace system, ending self-isolation rules and charging for tests.
A Government source said: ‘I think that sort of idea is very premature. We have got another few weeks of difficulty.’
But officials are targeting the spring for the possible lifting of all restrictions. Funding for free lateral flow tests is due to expire at the end of March, with self-isolation laws lapsing at the same time.
Although the measures could be renewed, ministers are increasingly optimistic they could be lifted at that point.
Mr Gove added: ‘We are moving to a situation where it is possible to say we can live with Covid, and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating.’
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Government’s Sage committee, said: ‘At some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase-out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over.’
Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservatives, warned Mr Johnson that if he sought to extend the measures he could face a revolt even larger than the 100 Conservatives who defied him when they were first introduced in December.
He said: ‘The Prime Minister sort of wants to agree with the backbenches, that we have to be realistic about living with Covid, then says he wants to keep restrictions in reserve. This is becoming an unsustainable position.’
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