Boris Johnson will on Tuesday abandon attempts to persuade Britons to return to the office, insisting that people should work from home “if possible” as part of sweeping measures to control coronavirus.
Mr Johnson will set out new Covid-19 restrictions in the House of Commons at lunchtime and in a televised address at 8pm will argue that the measures will help to stop the virus spread in social settings and work.
The prime minister will confirm plans to close all pubs, restaurants and bars at 10pm — with table service only — in a move that has alarmed the hospitality sector, which is already struggling.
But Mr Johnson will deliver another blow to the economy, particularly city centres, by abandoning his efforts earlier this month to persuade workers to have “the confidence” to return to their offices.
“If it is possible for people to work from home, then we’d encourage them to do so,” Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, told Sky News as he trailed the new restrictions.
Mr Gove said that those who could not work from home should still go to “Covid-secure” workplaces, but said the government was dropping its drive to bring 80 per cent of civil servants back to their offices.
Downing Street officials said there would be a “shift in emphasis” on the government’s advice about going back to the workplace, but nothing like the dramatic warnings against travel introduced earlier in the pandemic.
Mr Gove also said the government would “pause” plans to see a gradual return of fans to sporting events from October 1.
The development came as Mr Johnson prepared to chair cabinet and a Cobra emergency committee, before setting out the new Covid-19 plan to the nation.
Mr Johnson is treading a fine line between taking pre-emptive action to curb the spread of the virus and inflicting unnecessary damage on an economy that is still struggling to recover from the first pandemic wave.
The chancellor Rishi Sunak and many Tory MPs have led calls for Mr Johnson to move cautiously. The reversal of the government’s previous “back to the office” message will cause unease in the Treasury.
But Mr Gove said: “We need to balance the need for people to work and continue to go to school against taking steps to try and reduce the virus.”
He continued: “If we can encourage people to work from home, we will, but if people need to be in the office, we will work to make it as safe as possible.”
The rapid spread of the virus is forcing Mr Johnson to introduce new restrictions more quickly than he expected after Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical adviser, on Monday warned of “a very challenging winter”.
The latest restrictions will cause serious disruption to the hospitality sector. Last month, the Treasury offered discounted meals to encourage people back into pubs and restaurants, but from Thursday all venues will be told to close by 10pm, providing table service only.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, warned that a 10pm curfew could “halve” revenues at some venues — a level at which many businesses would struggle to survive.
Simon Emeny, chief executive of pub group Fuller’s, said: “It is only the loss of one or two trading hours, but it will significantly undermine consumer confidence at a time when government should be reassuring consumers that pubs are one of the most heavily regulated places to socialise in.”
In London the Joint Biosecurity Centre lifted the coronavirus threat level from three — meaning the epidemic is in general circulation — to four, where it is in general circulation and transmission is high or rising exponentially.