What do we know about a ‘back to work’ campaign?

4th Sep 2020

It was reported last week by a number of national media organisations that the government was preparing to launch a ‘back to work’ advertising campaign, to encourage people to return to the workplace. However, the government has denied that any such campaign ever existed. So what happened, and why is there so much confusion?

Were there plans for a media campaign?

On Friday, 28 August, the front page of The Telegraph carried the headline ‘Go back to work or risk losing your job’. It reported that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, would begin a “publicity campaign” the following week to “get Britain back to the office”. 

This would include “extol[ing] the virtues of returning to the workplace, making the ‘emotional case’ for mixing with colleagues and highlighting the benefits to mental health”, as well as offering reassurances that workplaces are now safe. 

The Telegraph said this “media blitz” would also include warnings that people who do not return to the office may be more at risk of redundancy than their colleagues who do. 

This story was widely reported, including by the BBC, the Mirror, the Guardian, the Sun, Sky News, the Financial Times and Mail Online.

On the same day, transport secretary Grant Shapps talked about the importance of returning to work during his media appearances. Asked about the publicity campaign on LBC, Mr Shapps said: “Our central message is pretty straightforward. We’re saying to people it is now safe to return to work [...] it is now safe to start returning, that’s what we’re encouraging people to do, because although you can do an awful lot of things via video, Zoom and all the rest of it, there are limitations to that and there will be times when that’s not appropriate.”

He also spoke of the “spark of creativity” when people come together in the workplace, and the importance of returning to work for people’s mental health and social contact. 

Asked about the publicity campaign on TalkRadio, he said: “We want to make sure workplaces are welcoming and are Covid-secure and people can return safely, and that’s what we’re ensuring happens in this next phase, as you say, from Tuesday when not only do schools go back but quite a few people will be going back to work as well.”

At no point did Mr Shapps suggest there was no campaign.

What actually happened?

No back to work “media blitz” emerged the next week.

On 1 September, Mr Johnson told the Cabinet: “People are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country and quite right too.” He did not offer any evidence for this. 

On 2 September, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News there is “only so long that you can carry on working completely remotely before you start losing the kind of fizz and excitement that you get in a really good workplace, so I think people will want to go back to work eventually and I hope it happens soon.” 

On the same day, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson repeatedly mentioned the importance of “going back to work”, while Chancellor Rishi Sunak tweeted a photograph of himself commuting on the London Underground.

By Thursday, 3 September, the Telegraph reported the campaign had been postponed amid ongoing divisions in government about social distancing and the number of civil servants who are still working from home. Asked about reports that the campaign was postponed on the BBC’s Today programme, chair of the 1922 committee (made up of Conservative backbench MPs) Graham Brady said it was “unsurprising”. 

“When the government knows what it wants to achieve, it really does need to make sure that all of the official advice which is being issued is in tune with the guidance that is being put out by ministers,” he said.   

However, that afternoon, a spokesperson for Mr Johnson said: “There has never been a ‘back to work’ campaign”.

He said there was only a “press partnership” with regional and local media “on a variety of topics to do with the coronavirus response”, including ensuring more people can “spend some of their time working from the office”. 

 What is the current situation?

The government’s social distancing guidelines for England, last updated in August, say it is “at the discretion of employers” as to how staff work safely. This can be by working from home, or by making workplaces safe by following Covid-19 secure guidelines—including ensuring social distancing is maintained. The guidance says those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable “should carry on working from home wherever possible”. 

The advice in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is that all people should work from home if possible. 

Figures from the Office for National Statistics, released on 4 September, said more people are travelling to work than they were two months ago. It found 57% of working adults in Great Britain reported travelling to work (either exclusively or in combination with working from home) in the past seven days, while 20% worked exclusively at home. 

One indicator of whether people are travelling to work is to look at public transport use. Government figures show National Rail use was at 31% of normal levels across Great Britain as of 1 September, while bus use outside of London was at 49%. In London, bus use was at 54% of normal levels and journeys on the London Underground at 33%. (The August bank holiday, which ended the day before, does mean there’s a chance fewer people were working at this time).

Although these figures are not much different than they were on 1 August, they show a big increase from 1 July when National Rail was at 16% of normal levels, buses outside of London at 24%, buses in London at 33% and the London Underground at 16%.