UK ministers are drawing up plans to let employers use Covid-19 certificates for staff working in office buildings once most people are vaccinated later in the year, according to officials and industry figures.
The move comes after 12 months of remote working for most white-collar workers in the UK, with chancellor Rishi Sunak among those emphasising the benefits of people working closely with colleagues in person.
Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested pub landlords could look to restrict customers if they do not have proof of either vaccination, antibodies or a recent test for Covid-19.
Establishments using such “certificates” would be able to abandon social distancing and pack in more customers, under plans being considered in a review by Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister.
Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, told the BBC on Sunday that no decisions had been taken but in order “to facilitate further easing of the economy and allowing us to get back to doing the things that we love . . . [certificates] might be a tool in the short run”.
Dowden was asked about sporting and cultural events, but the Gove review is also considering the question of whether companies will be allowed to use certificates to allow staff into offices or factories without the current social distancing, Whitehall and industry figures said. Some executives are keen to be allowed to use such documents to facilitate a return to normal working practice in offices.
The discussions come as business leaders urge the government to provide clarity on whether workers will be allowed back into offices this summer.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said there was still “a lot of uncertainty and questions for businesses which want to operate from offices” with a lack of clear government guidance.
“Companies are concerned about the employment law consequences of these decisions around return to work, the concerns around potential for liability, but most of all concerns about doing what is right for their people,” he said.
A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Management found that more than half of managers wanted to make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for staff returning to work.
Covid certificates would be less contentious than vaccination proof alone because they would allow the use of alternatives — such as proof of antibodies or recent testing — for those unwilling or unable to receive a jab, for example pregnant women.
Gove himself held a round table with business groups last week to try to address their concerns. He is expected to report back in early April with initial recommendations.
Tamzen Isacsson, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, which counts many large office employers among its membership, said “it would be extremely difficult and unfair for any employer to plan any rules around return to offices dependent on vaccination” until all employees have had the chance to be vaccinated.
Unions have been opposed to any restrictions based on vaccination alone but are relatively relaxed about the idea of Covid-19 certification with multiple criteria.
The current guidance from the government is still to “work from home” where possible, although that is likely to be lifted at some point in the summer — depending on the outcome on a separate Cabinet Office review on social distancing.
On Friday, Sunak told the Daily Telegraph that workers must be allowed to return to the office or they could “vote with their feet” and quit.
Stressing the benefits of a return to the workplace, he added: “You can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.”
His comments, however, prompted a backlash from Labour, with Bridget Phillipson, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, accusing Sunak of “downplaying” the risk of the pandemic.
“This chancellor just can’t help himself,” said Phillipson. “Once again, [he] is trying to pressure people back into the office even though his government’s own guidance is that people should work from home where possible.”