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‘Pointless to shout about return to the workplace’

London deputy mayor warns on failure to solve the ‘problem about social distancing in offices’

11 September, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Jules Pipe, the deputy mayor, said Sadiq Khan ‘is not in control of social distancing in offices’

GOVERNMENT attempts to revive dead city centres by urging people to go back to work are “utterly pointless”, because offices are not set up for social distancing, one of the city’s deputy mayors claimed this week.

With central London still feeling ghostly after the coronavirus lockdown, and financial challenges growing for services that rely on a daily influx of employees, Jules Pipe came under fire for being too “doom and gloom” about getting staff back into the workplace.

Mr Pipe, Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for planning, was appearing at the London Assembly’s economy committee as members discussed how to save high streets.

He was also told not enough was being done to soothe people’s worries that it might not be safe to travel on tubes and buses.

Westminster City Council has already said more must be done to inject life into the West End and central areas, with the issue set to be discussed at next week’s full council meeting.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has urged staff to stop working from home and head back to the office.

Workplace settings are exempted from new “rule of six” limitations on group gatherings due to come in next week.

But Mr Pipe told the meeting on Monday that government guidance was clear that social distancing measures still needed to be in place in offices and so companies could not bounce back to the previous numbers of people coming into work.

He said: “Until we solve this problem about socially distancing in offices, it’s utterly pointless – it’s shouting in the wind – to exhort people to go back to the offices that their employers are telling them not to come to.”

And he warned the committee: “When one marks out offices to comply with social distancing, they are at about 25 to 30 per cent of their capacity.

Shaun Bailey, Conservative mayoral candidate, said ‘the mayor’s assessment has been very doom and gloom – it’s asking people to stay away, in effect’ [Photo MichaelEdwardH]

“At the extreme end, you have some employers telling their staff that if they use public transport they will not be welcome back in the office for 14 days and will have to self-isolate.”

He added: “So the potential audience for London’s services, London’s general economy, whether it be Pret, whether it be restaurants, whether it be reopened cultural nightlife, is short of 70 per cent of its potential audience and the mayor is not in control of social distancing in offices.

“They are following government guidelines which deters 70 per cent of office workers from coming.”

But London Assembly members Susan Hall and Shaun Bailey – the latter is the Conservative mayoral candidate – said neither Mr Pipe nor Sadiq Khan were doing enough to encourage those who could go back to return to their offices.

Mr Bailey said the picture that Mr Pipe had given was “not universal”, adding: “Many employers are asking staff to come in – and surely the mayor’s position should be that ‘if you can provide a safe working space, I can provide safe transport and you should come’. As much as we talk about furlough, we all know that it can’t go on for ever.

“The only way we can go on is to get London back moving.”

He said some companies were being innovative and changing shift patterns so that employees worked at different times, and that the mayor and his team should be encouraging such efforts among others.

“Your assessment and the mayor’s assessment has been very doom and gloom – it’s asking people to stay away, in effect,” Mr Bailey told Mr Pipe.

“What I’m suggesting is that shouldn’t the mayor be talking about the innovation that businesses are showing to get people back in?”

He added: “This has been a very down in the mouth, terrorised, ‘keep out of London’ conversation.

“We all know that in six to eight months, maybe even sooner, that if we don’t get working in London, we will have serious amounts of unemployment, some of which could be mitigated by steps taken now.”

Ms Hall told the meeting: “We all accept it’s difficult and, please God, a vaccine comes through quickly and we can all start to get back to some sort of normality. It hasn’t helped that the mayor has been so slow to react on tube-related issues.”

On the use of public transport Mr Pipe, a former Labour mayor of Hackney, said: “Transport for London has obviously instigated additional cleaning and is encouraging people to wear masks. The potential capacity of the tube is now up to 100 per cent, so in terms of minimising over­crowding, reassuring people about cleanliness when they travel, the mayor can do no more than that on public transport.”

He added: “He can’t invent additional trains or additional tube lines. We can always do more – and I’m sure we will do more – on campaigning to reassure people it’s safe, but that’s about the limit one can do.”

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