Attention is now turning to how to start to ease restrictions on lockdown to enable the reopening of more parts of our economy. As we have pointed out in a previous article, the economy can’t simply be turned off and on again and any restarting must not jeopardise public health. It is also important to recognise that for many workers and business owners there will be legitimate anxiety about returning to work.
In this article, we look at some of the barriers that may prevent individuals from returning to physical workplaces. For those who can continue to work from home, it is likely that they will be asked to do so for the foreseeable future. But this is simply not feasible for all.
There are three key issues that will affect whether people feel they can return to work and do so without jeopardising their own or other people’s health and wellbeing: ability to leave the home, being able to travel safely to work, and safety once at work.
Care and illness
For some, even walking out the front door will be impossible. These include (at least one of) the parents of children who require full-time care (i.e. pre-school and primary school children at least) when schools and nurseries remain closed. Options published by the Scottish Government on allowing children to return to school include letting select age groups of children back to school and/or looking at a blend of school and home learning. Neither or these options suggest that all parents will be able to return to normal working patterns. For single parents, this is particularly problematic.
Others that will feel unable to return to physical workplaces include anyone who is needing to shield themselves due to underlying health conditions, or anyone living with someone in this situation.
The unfortunate truth is that many of those who will find it most difficult to leave the home will be those who are already more likely to be financially vulnerable. Children in lone parent families are at higher risk of poverty (39%) than non-lone parent families (19%) as are people who either have, or live with someone else who has, a disability or long-term limiting health condition (23% in poverty) compared to those who don’t (17%).
The next consideration for many will be around how they will get to their workplace safely. Those who need to use public transport are likely to be most affected. This could be both from the risks of being in confined spaces or from the issues arising from reduced capacity (for example, if commuters are required sit far apart then fewer numbers of people will be able to travel at one time).
Staggered commutes have been suggested as one idea to reduce peaks in traveller numbers and some workplaces may be able to flex working patterns to help with this. But unless there is some system of rigidly enforced travel permits, there will always be the risk of either being in a crowded space or perhaps being denied entry onto transport and not being able to get to work at all.
Again, those with any health issues may feel they have no choice but to opt out of a risky situation where they may be in close proximity with other people. We also know that those living in poorer households are less likely to have a car and therefore be more reliant on public transport.
Other options, such as walking, jogging or cycling to work might be possible for some but not everyone, and increased car use may indeed make this less preferable.
Much has already been written about the higher incidence of critical Covid-19 among minority ethnic groups, and one of the factors which may explain this is that they are more likely to be in public facing occupations. Even with the best intentions, some workplaces are, and will continue to be, more risky than others.
Research published by the Resolution Foundation has already shown that those in better paid occupations are more likely to be able to work from home, and hence avoid both the risks of the workplace and the commute.
Those with underlying health issues may not be able to take any risks at all, but beyond this, it is difficult to say who will be most at risk once people return to physical workplaces. Indeed, there can be very different workplace settings even within the same type of industry – for example in a highly automated manufacturing process versus a labour-intensive system, and within the same business – for example due to the existence of both public facing and back office staff. These are issues we will return to in a subsequent article.
Whether an individual can straightforwardly return to work after lockdown will depend on personal health, family, commute-to-work and workplace factors.
For some people, ability to return to a physical workplace will be straightforward. For example, a single adult with no dependants, with a car to commute to work and with a workplace where social distancing can be easily enforced.
Those with barriers to returning are likely to be those with additional barriers to work even in normal times – for example, those with a health condition and primary carers. In addition, the issues that this pandemic throws up with regards to mass transit mean that those without cars who need to commute long distances could face additional barriers to getting to work safely and reliably.
It’s important that debate doesn’t neglect this complexity by focusing purely on a simplistic sectoral assessment of labour market impacts. These issues have the potential to entrench existing inequalities in our labour market and society which could be multiplied by firms potentially seeking to reduce staff numbers as they themselves come to terms with changes in the economy.
The issues outlined in this article demonstrate that the trade-offs from starting to reopen the economy aren’t all directly related to health. The problem is that all future courses of action, or inaction, have trade-offs. To be confident that we are following the ‘least bad’ option, we need to be sure that policy makers have compared and understood all the intended and unintended consequences, including the potential to exacerbate financial harm to those already ill equipped to withstand it.