The UK government has been accused of trying to “frighten” women with caring responsibilities back into workplaces, after a minister reportedly warned remote workers were more at risk of losing their jobs.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s government is set to ramp up its back-to-work messaging with a new campaign next week, mainly through regional and local media.
The campaign will argue going back to workplaces is safe and good for workers’ mental health, despite widespread fears over virus risks, particularly on public transport.
Johnson is said to share some business leaders’ alarm over many town and city centres remaining “ghost towns,” with many employers and staff able to work remotely in no rush to return to workplaces.
But news of the media blitz was overshadowed by a warning from an unnamed government minister that remote workers could “find themselves in the most vulnerable position” if employers look for cutbacks.
Working from home “could prove problematic” for some employees if their bosses are only seeing them once a fortnight, the source said in remarks splashed on the frontpage of the Daily Telegraph.
The comments sparked an immediate outcry, given many workers’ health issues and concerns as well as greater-than-usual caring responsibilities during the pandemic.
Sophie Walker, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust, said it was “utterly shameful to frighten those people, mainly women, doing the unpaid work of caring for children, disabled people, older people that those same ministers won’t invest in.”
“This will be a short-lived, uneven recovery so long as it denies the talents, creativity and productivity of half the population,” she added. “We’re never going back to normal. And ‘normal’ wasn’t working for any but a small, privileged part of the population.”
Labour also went on the offensive, with shadow business secretary Lucy Powell saying it “beggars belief” the government would make such threats. “Forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable.”
But other government sources distanced themselves from the minister’s reported remarks. One told Politico’s London Playbook there was “no truth” to suggestions the government’s media campaign may include such messaging.
A government spokesperson said: “We are working closely with employers across the country to help them make workplaces Covid-secure and give people confidence to go back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Next week we will showcase the benefits of returning safely to work and raise awareness of companies getting this right. We’ll also provide practical steps businesses are taking to ensure offices are Covid-secure as well as alternative ways of travelling to work.”
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