UK's Johnson nudges workers back to office as lockdown eases

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Frank Augstein/AP

Britain's Prime Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions session, in parliament in London, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday that people will no longer be told to work from home and avoid public transit in a major easing of lockdown restrictions — even as he said the government was “preparing for the worst” in case of a new coronavirus spike this winter.

Johnson said the government's advice to avoid non-essential use of public transit was being lifted immediately, and that from Aug. 1 workers would no longer be told to do their jobs from home, if possible. He said it will now be up to businesses to determine whether they can bring employees back to workplaces in a “COVID-secure” way.

The U.K.'s official pandemic death toll, which stood at more than 45,000 as of Friday, has for several weeks been the highest in Europe and the third-highest in the world behind the United States and Brazil.

Johnson is trying to walk a tightrope, avoiding a resurgence of the virus while also encouraging a return to shops, restaurants and workplaces to kick-start a badly battered economy that has shrunk by a quarter since March.

While some businesses have seen customers return in previous stages of lockdown easing, those that rely on office workers are struggling, and Johnson is keen to see more people go back to city-center workplaces.

But the prime minister's move to give employers “more discretion” about whether to ask their staffs to return to regular work locations appears at odds with the views of his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, who said Thursday that there was “absolutely no reason” to change the work-from-home advice.

Johnson said he was not ordering people back to the office.

“Obviously it’s not for government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their workers in the office or not,” he said.