This morning at half eight, David Lovenbury walked through the empty Newcastle city centre on his way to his office, situated by the Quayside, for the first time since Monday 16 March. In the almost 140 days since he was last at his desk the 51-year-old was furloughed from his role as a commercial director - it happened a couple of weeks after moving to remote working - but now he is back and ready for business.
Lovenbury, who drove the 10 miles from his home in Whitley Bay rather than using public transport, tells The Independent he prefers being in the office to remote working and feels confident about safety in his workplace (they have installed hand sanitiser stations and rearranged furniture to support distancing). “There was no pressure at all [to return], it was a mutual decision as the timing seemed appropriate,” but that there were some “back to school nerves” as he drove in.
He says for the rest of the week he will use the Metro system, rather than his car, to commute – “it feels safe, I have no reservations” – but he does feel the situation isn't yet back to normal. “I just hope the city centre survives this, and pray the economy can bounce back. Newcastle is a vibrant, loud and cosmopolitan city and seeing it so eerily quiet [this morning] was heartbreaking.”
Like Lovenbury, thousands of people across England were permitted to return to their offices on Monday 3 August. On 17 July, after months of telling people to work from home if possible, Boris Johnson said employers could bring staff back on 1 August. The prime minister said: “It is not for the government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their work forces in the office or not – that is for companies.”
There has been some criticism of the change in policy; it did seem to directly contradict an announcement by the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance 24 hours earlier, when he said there was “absolutely no reason” to change the guidance on working from home. London mayor Sadiq Khan also said the government should not encourage people to return to their workplaces if it means overcrowding public transport.
The new guidance even states that even those deemed “extremely clinically vulnerable” to the virus can be asked to return, a move which lead charities, including Macmillan, to warn that lifting the shielding programme on the same weekend is forcing cancer patients to choose between “finances and their health”. On 31 July it looked like Mr Johnson might retract the back-to-work pledge as he “squeezed the brakes” on a number of other easing measures. But he did not, leaving it to the discretion of individual companies to make the decision.
"We both feel it is more dangerous than ever now to be going back to a communal office because of the sheer amount of people arriving on holiday...
James White, 40, from Cornwall, was less enthused than Lovenbury about going back to his job at an architecture practice on Monday. His wife Amanda, 35, who was furloughed from her job at a furniture shop but has been working part time on her own SEO and social media consultancy during lockdown, said the couple both have “mixed feelings” about his return to the office.
“We are both nervous about him going back to work,” she says. This is particularly because this week is the height of the summer holiday season in Newquay, where they live, so the amount of tourist footfall in town is high. “We both feel it is more dangerous than ever now to be going back to a communal office because of the sheer amount of people arriving on holiday,” she says.
Both are worried that James might bring Covid-19 home to their 17-month-old son or to Amanda, who is asthmatic. “We’ve remained in lockdown since the start. We’ve rarely visited shops and are managing with a food delivery every 7-10 days. We aren’t going to any play parks with our son, he is not back to nursery and we’ve not been into our local town [since March].”
“We did feel safe. Now I feel anxious that my husband will be mixing with people potentially not taking things as seriously. We can’t control others,” she explains. “Of course there are only so many Zoom meetings you can do but there are still the pangs of anxiety, worry and guilt about potentially bringing a killer virus into the family when working from home is possible.”
The Whites aren’t the only people apprehensive about returning. In an exclusive focus group conducted with YouGov and The Independent office workers expressed their hope that remote working would continue post-pandemic, with many saying they did not want to return to office work five days a week. Several big businesses, including Facebook and Twitter, have already said they will be using the pandemic as an opportunity to encourage permanent remote working and the closure of large office spaces.
"I was excited to get out of the house and get back to normality, but there was also the looming feeling of ‘is it all back to normal now...
Louise Joy, 30, a magazine editor from Milton Keynes, said she has also been unsure about how to feel about rejoining her small team (four people, including Joy) on Monday. “I was ready for some sort of normality but I don’t think I’m ready to go back full time,” she says. “I didn’t feel pressured by my boss, but by the job in general – it became clear that there was a struggle with working from home and we all needed to get back to the office in one way or another.”
Her employee has provided a basket of masks, tissue, wipes and water bottles to use to maintain hygiene standards. Like Lovenbury she says that it felt like she was “prepping for her first day of school” on Sunday evening. “I was excited to get out of the house and get back to normality, but there was also the looming feeling of 'is it all back to normal now'?”.
Data from the Office for National Statistics found shows almost half (47 per cent) of employed adults had been working remotely at home for some, or all, of lockdown. Now as people are encouraged to return to their normal workplaces by the government, while simultaneously the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in England rises again, only time will tell whether it was too soon.