24 hours, 2 contrasting messages on going to work

Boris Johnson has lifted the government’s working from home guidance – in a move that appears at odds with his top scientific adviser.

From 1 August, Johnson announced on Friday, it will be up to employers to decide whether employees who have been working from home during the coronavirus lockdown should return to their workplaces.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, had insisted working from home should continue and that the guidance should not be changed.

With the government having already been accused of mixed messaging during the pandemic, the contradiction between Sir Patrick and the prime minister will raise further questions about Downing Street’s relationship with its top scientists.

Different stances: Sir Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson.
Different stances: Sir Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson.

Here is what they said…

Sir Patrick Vallance, House of Commons science and technology committee, 2.30pm on Thursday

“I think my view on this, and I think this is a view shared by SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies], is that we’re still at a time when distancing measures are important.

“And, of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do.

“I think a number of companies think it’s actually not detrimental to productivity.

“And in that situation, absolutely no reason I can see to change it.”

Boris Johnson, Downing Street press conference, 11am on Friday

“Instead of the government telling people to work from home, we’re going to give employers more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.

“That could mean, of course, continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees.

“Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following COVID-secure guidelines.

“Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe.

“As we reopen our society and economy, it’s right that we give employers more discretion while continuing to ensure all employees are kept safe.”

What does this suggest?

At the start of the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s government revolved around being led by the science in its decision-making.

With Johnson now desperate to get the economy moving again – and the number of infections significantly lower – the government has a different balance to strike.

The differing stances of Sir Patrick and Johnson in the past 24 hours indicate the PM’s priority has shifted further towards the economy.

Sir Patrick was notably absent from Friday’s press conference. In past coronavirus briefings in which Johnson has made major announcements, Sir Patrick has been at Johnson’s side.

Some have argued this may point to tension between the politicians and scientists.

When later asked by journalists whether Sir Patrick and chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty had “signed off” the updated road map laid out by the PM, Johnson’s spokesman said they were “involved” in all the discussions, before adding: “The road map was agreed by the CS [coronavirus strategy] committee, of which they are both contributors, and they also took part in the cabinet discussion this morning.”

England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, right, and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance in London, Monday March 16, 2020, ahead of a meeting with the Government's emergency committee to discuss coronavirus. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)
Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty pictured in March. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty, appearing before the House of Lords science and technology committee on Friday afternoon, appeared to distance themselves even further from Johnson as they cast doubt on his suggestion social distancing could end in November.

However, as Johnson said at his press conference, scientific advisers “give us advice which we of course take very, very seriously – but in the end decisions are taken by the elected politicians”.

And it is Johnson who has promised to take responsibility for what happens next.

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