Boots bosses ‘encouraged’ staff to work at head office despite UK government advice

Boots told staff they were “encouraged” to come in to its headquarters in Nottingham, where Covid-19 infection rates are the highest in England, even after the government advised people to work from home where possible.

Employees said messages from senior managers – seen by the Guardian – indicated they were expected to be at their desks for at least part of the week. Boots verified the messages, including one from its UK boss, Seb James, but denied that staff were put under any implicit pressure to be in its Nottingham office.

Nottingham has the highest rate of infections in England, at nearly 955 for every 100,000 people in the city, recording 1,000 new cases in the 24 hours leading up to 14 October.

On 13 October, the Boots human resources chief, Nathan Clements, wrote to staff to “confirm our working from the office guidance” for staff in Nottingham, including the Beeston site, where Ibuprofen was invented.

“Consistent with the new government regulations and local government guidance, the Beeston campus will remain open for colleagues, to spend some of their working week based in the office,” he wrote.

The email lists exemptions for people who are shielding, are displaying symptoms or are “unable” to spend any of their working week in the office. But it makes no mention of what staff should do if they feel coming to work is unsafe.

One Boots employee told the Guardian: “If you have previously been shielding you are allowed to work from home, but for all other colleagues it’s an opt-out system and the implication is that you need to have a strong reason to WFH [work from home], it can’t be personal preference.”

What are the three tiers of England’s Covid lockdown system?

  • The “rule of six” applies, meaning socialising in groups larger than six people is prohibited whether indoors or outdoors.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work and are not counted as being part of the six-person limit.
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered by phone or online.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors, and – if the rule of six is followed – indoors.
  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.
  • The rule of six continues to apply for socialising outdoors, for instance in a garden or public space like a park or beach.
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered online or by phone.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with those they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport.
  • Travel is permitted to amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but people are advised to reduce the number of journeys where possible.
  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody they do not live with, or have not formed a support bubble with, in any indoor setting, private garden or at most outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.
  • The rule of six continues to apply to outdoor public spaces, such as parks, beaches, public gardens or sports venues.
  • Pubs and bars are only permitted to remain open to operate as restaurants, in which case alcohol can only be served as part of a substantial meal.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but household mixing is not permitted.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people attending (15 and 30 respectively) but wedding receptions are not allowed.
  • The rules for exercise classes and organised sport are the same as in tier 2. They can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport. However, in Merseyside, gyms were ordered to close when it entered tier 3.
  • Travelling outside a very high alert level area or entering a very high alert level area should be avoided other than for things such as work, education or youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if travelling through as part of a longer journey.
  • Residents of a tier 3 area should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK, while people who live in a tier 1 or tier 2 area should avoid staying overnight in a very high alert level area.

A second staff member referred to the same email and said earlier messages had given the impression they should be in the office two or three days a week.

In an email sent on 23 September, the company’s UK managing director, Seb James, said the company wanted people to be in the office.

“The prime minister advised yesterday that the government would revert to the guidance that was in place pre-September; namely that people should work from home if they can do so without adversely impacting their business.

“In line with this, our guidance is to encourage a blend of home and office working for those colleagues who do not fall into vulnerable categories,” he wrote.

“About 85% of colleagues have spent some of their week in the office these last few weeks and I think that everybody has found that to be a helpful and good thing to do.

“I am really pleased that, because of the amazing work done by the teams, we can continue to offer this to all of you and hope that you will continue to spend at least some of the working week in the office.”

James said staff who were “unable” to work in the office, for instance because they or a family member have a health condition, should speak to their line manager.

But again, the message did not mention that staff could work from home if they felt unsafe doing otherwise.

The second employee said: “Boots is one of the biggest employers here in Nottingham, I’m concerned for the health of the staff and the community.

“It doesn’t feel like a good example, from such a big private healthcare company.”

Boots said: “Boots is recognised by the UK government as an essential business providing pharmacy, medicines and healthcare essentials to communities and supporting the NHS during these extremely challenging times. Our support site in Nottingham keeps our business running, supporting our 50,000 frontline workers (including pharmacists, store assistants and delivery drivers) as well as keeping our 2,400 pharmacies, stores and website operating. They also support in the delivery of products and prescriptions to patients and customers as well as to stores, care homes and hospitals.”

“In line with government guidance, our Nottingham site remains open for colleagues, although due to stringent social distancing measures, we cannot accept all colleagues into the office every day so we are suggesting a blend of home and office working.

“Colleague safety remains paramount and we have comprehensive measures in place across all of our workplaces to ensure they are Covid secure and that they more than meet government guidelines.

“We recognise, however, that for some colleagues it remains appropriate – or necessary – to work from home full time, and we are happy to support individuals to do this.”

Boots, owned by the US pharmacy firm Walgreens, this week reported a 30% slump in UK sales in the three months to the end of August as shoppers stayed away from town centres and picked up health goods at supermarkets instead.

Source: Read Full Article