The Cabinet Office’s U-turn on plans to get 80% of civil servants back into their offices by the end of this month has been labelled a “shambles” that was “entirely predictable and avoidable” by the main union for senior public sector officials.
Whitehall unions reacted poorly to the news that four in five staff would be required to return to their workplaces by the end of this month when it was announced by then cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm just over two weeks ago.
On Tuesday the drive was unceremoniously dumped by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, hours before prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed he wanted the nation to resume working from home wherever possible to reduce coronavirus transmission rates.
Dave Penman, who is general secretary of the FDA union, said the U-turn was the correct course of action, but condemned the thinking behind Sedwill and Chisholm’s return-to-work call – which was made at a time when reinfection rates for Covid-19 were already on the rise.
“The government has rightly abandoned its misguided target of getting 80% of civil servants back into offices by the end of the month, first announced only three weeks ago,” he said.
“What’s really frustrating is that this shambles was entirely predictable and avoidable.
“We knew a second wave was likely and yet ministers devised a scheme around the cabinet table to move staff who were working perfectly well at home back into the office, with no consideration for how this could be practically achieved.”
Penman said “precious time and resources” had been wasted trying to safely implement the now-scrapped plans, “which it was clear from the start were never based in reality”.
He added: “This confused approach has only led to the government losing credibility around its messaging and civil servants will be feeling quite insulted by the way they’ve been used in a failed attempt to virtue signal to the private sector to return to offices.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said he was due to meet with Chisholm this afternoon and planned to discuss a range of measures, including the call for a commitment that civil servants will be allowed to work from home by default until next year.
In a pre-meeting letter published by the union, Serwotka flagged his warnings from two weeks ago that the return-to-work drive was incompatible with rising Covid-19 cases in mainland Europe and the expectation that the UK would see similar increases imminently.
“The civil service should be told that the default position of home working will not change this year and that in the New Year it will be reviewed in consultation with the unions,” he wrote.
“This will give certainty to colleagues but also to departments. They can then concentrate on rolling out the necessary kit (changing systems as necessary) to staff so that the maximum of people can work from home.”
Chief medical officer for England Prof Chris Whitty and government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned the public on Monday that rising infection rates meant the country could reach 50,000 new coronavirus cases a day in a matter of weeks. They said there could be 200 coronavirus-related deaths a day by November if transmission rates continued to rise.
Gove said the return-to-work U-turn was a logical response to the situation and had been agreed with Chisholm, who is also Cabinet Office perm sec.
“I’ve been in discussion with the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and one of the things that we recognise is that in the circumstances, if we can help people to work from home we will,” he said.
“If people do need to be in the office then we will make sure, we have made sure, that they can be as safe as possible.”