Thousands of small firms struggling with the Covid crisis could suffer a crushing blow if masks are made mandatory in the office, business chiefs have warned.
Companies are increasingly fearful that new rules on masks could be imposed as they struggle to bring staff back to work – with many company owners concerned it would kill their efforts to restore normality and bring back the daily commute.
The concern comes after France ordered all office workers to wear masks from Tuesday onwards. Secondary schools in Britain are to tell pupils they must cover up in public areas where local lockdowns are in force, sparking fears of a similar order for offices here too.
Mike Cherry, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “Many small businesses have already invested to the tune of thousands in making workplaces safe. Any further changes need to be carefully thought through and accompanied by direct financial assistance.
“A blanket rule to impose face masks at all times and on all small firms – rather than having them as one element of various potential measures – risks stifling efforts to get more people back into offices, and the cafes, restaurants and retailers that depend on commuter footfall.”
Data already shows that Britain is lagging behind in the scramble to bring back office workers, with an estimated 50pc still doing their jobs from home according to data crunched by Google.
It is feared that many firms will never return to the old nine-to-five model – potentially wrecking the pubs, shops and restaurants in towns and city centres which depend on them for business.
If workers are forced to wear a face mask all day, the challenge of restoring normality could be even more severe.
Tej Parikh, chief economist at the Institute of Directors (IoD), said: “There's no getting round the fact that the prospect of wearing a mask all day could be a tough sell.
“The return to offices is already uncertain, given the challenges involved and the fact that, in many cases, remote working has gone more smoothly than anticipated.”
Mr Cherry also said other measures should be prioritised and called for the Government to step up its contact tracing programme so there is less risk of Covid circulating widely.
He said: “Face masks are an important tool in the fight against Covid-19 for businesses, but there are many others: social distancing of employees, hand sanitiser stations, dividing staff into separate teams and rotating their office attendance, thoroughly cleaning premises, ensuring fresh air flow, and of course ensuring staff stay isolated if they have symptoms and follow track-and-trace procedures.
“We were promised a world-beating track-and-trace system, and that really remains the key to giving more people the confidence to come back into offices safely.”
A flurry of major firms have already delayed plans to return to the office, with finance companies particularly keen to embrace a more permanent form of home working.
Daniel Pinto, head of JP Morgan’s investment banking arm, told CNBC on Tuesday that the company’s 16,000 UK based staff will alternate between home working and office based shifts permanently after the crisis ends.
He added that the company may close its back-up office in Basingstoke because remote working has been such a huge success.
Fund manager Schroders has also offered staff far more flexibility on shifts, and London-based broker Numis told staff in May that Monday to Friday that office work will not return in the same guise as before.
Meanwhile, “magic circle” law firm Linklaters told employees worldwide that they will be allowed to spend between 20pc and 50pc of their time working remotely, with employees who work from the office having more control over their shift patterns.
Despite hinting at a similar approach earlier this year, Barclays boss Jes Staley rowed back on comments saying the office could be a thing of the past as the company vowed to keep its 32-storey London skyscraper.
The IoD warned earlier this week that workers may be unwilling to return to their offices. It said: “Many [employees] will be reluctant to return to the daily grind of commuting. The IoD added that it will be an “uphill struggle” for ministers to get staff back to their desks.
Will workers return to the office? What will happen to the cafés, pubs and restaurants that rely on office workers? Share your view in the comments section below