Andrea Leadsom MP is chair of the Early Years Healthy Development Review, which has just published a six-point action plan.
When lockdown hit, furlough became the country’s lifeline. It saved thousands of jobs, kept many companies afloat and provided the vital life support system to stop our economy from grinding to a complete halt.
But such a broad intervention has inevitably created winners and losers, from those who took furlough and then found a second job – boosting their income at the taxpayers’ expense, to those who missed furlough’s financial support because of their specific situation making them ineligible. The outrage towards those who took advantage of the situation, and the anger and frustration of those who have really suffered, will be felt for a long time to come.
Furlough has led to a unique set of problems for both businesses and employees. There are some employees who are now afraid of coming back to work – the lengthy time on furlough has left them lacking the confidence that work can be safe.
For other employees who have worked throughout lockdown, the end of restrictions cannot come soon enough. Every day I receive emails from some who are furious that there are still constraints on their freedom. Others think their employer should let them work permanently from home as they have come to appreciate the lack of a commute to work.
And then there are many, particularly young people, just starting out in the world of work, whose employers have not allowed them back to their premises. For those employees – longing for workplace camaraderie, the chat around the coffee machine, even a proper desk, the return to work cannot come soon enough.
With so many different perspectives, there is little wonder that employers are needing to look carefully at how to transition back to normality. Their prospects have also been profoundly impacted – many businesses have taken out Bounceback loans and CBILS to stay afloat and a number have been generous in topping up their employee’s furlough.
Some employers have taken advantage of furlough to close their offices and reduce their overheads, leaving their employees with nowhere to work other than their own bedroom. And frustratingly, some businesses have taken out taxpayer guaranteed loans with no intention of ever repaying them or reopening again.
This all points to a challenging world of work post lockdown at a time when our economy needs to bounce back if we are to recover from the vast amount of debt the country took on to survive. The Chancellor has a real challenge to incentivise both workers and businesses and get things moving again.
I think the answer lies in making flexible work standard – whereby there is a collaborative agreement between employer and employee on the number of hours worked and where the job is. It can reflect both the reality of post Covid preferences and the need to restore our economy. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that allowing – even encouraging – people to work flexibly will boost productivity, increase diversity in the workforce and help our wellbeing. I hope that the Government will consider the role it can play in our recovery.
When our economy suffers, we all suffer. Bouncing back in a strong, determined way will boost our recovery, and allow the Covid debt to be tackled quickly – otherwise it becomes a millstone around the necks of the next generation. Much like we all played our part in the national effort against the pandemic – caring for our neighbours, supporting our NHS and taking up the vaccine, now is the time to play our role in helping our nation’s fiscal and mental health. Helping people back to new flexible jobs is where it must start.