Controversial plans to get 80% of civil servants back to their workplaces for at least part of the week by the end of this month have been dumped by ministers in a U-turn aimed at heading off a second wave of coronavirus.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove conceded today that the drive, announced by then cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm barely two weeks ago, was no longer a goal.
Gove’s confirmation comes ahead of a statement to parliament from prime minister Boris Johnson, who is expected to announce new measures to address the resurgence of coronavirus, after the government’s most senior scientists warned that there could be 50,000 new cases a day in a matter of weeks.
Yesterday, chief medical officer for England Prof Chris Whitty and government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned the public that rising infection rates meant the country could reach 200 deaths a day by November if transmission rates of coronavirus continue to rise.
Speaking on Sky News this morning, Gove was asked whether it was still the plan for 80% of civil servants to be back at their workplaces for some of the week by the end of this month – eight days away. Gove answered: “no”.
He said that following talks with Chisholm, who is also perm sec at the Cabinet Office, there had been a recognition that the evolving environment for the pandemic called for a change of tack.
“One of the things that we sought to do was to encourage people to be back at work, and we were staging a process whereby people would come back into work in Whitehall and elsewhere,” he said.
“But 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.
“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.”
At the time Sedwill and Chisholm announced the return-to-work drive, civil service unions reacted with a mixture of disappointment and disbelief, noting that it was both a rejection of more modern remote working practices and a potential danger to staff health.
PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, called for a rethink on the plans in the light of the UK’s rising reinfection rate. General secretary Mark Serwotka dubbed the move “arbitrary” and questioned the extent to which health and safety law had been considered before the 80% target was set.
Gove’s civil service announcement this morning was part of what he called a “shift in emphasis” from the current government guidance that people should return to their regular workplaces if they can, which had been introduced in part as a measure to boost the economy.
"One of the things we are going to emphasise is that if it is possible for people to work from home, we are going to encourage them to do so," he said.
“It’s important to stress that there are many, many, many roles, which can't be performed from home. There are people in manufacturing, construction in retail, and other roles when we recognise that simply impossible, and that's fine.
“We have worked to make sure that you can have Covid-secure workplaces, and we need to balance, obviously, the need to ensure that people can continue to work – and indeed critically continue to go to school and to benefit from education – against taking steps to try to reduce the virus, which is why we can limit or appropriately restrain social content. That's what we're trying to do.”
The government has already announced that it will introduce a 10pm curfew on hospitality venues, – such as pubs, bars and restaurants – from tomorrow in a bid to slow the spread of the pandemic.
In a separate interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Gove was asked whether a group could continue socialising at somebody’s house once pubs close.
“It is the case that with the rule of six, you can have six people in a social gathering, yes,” he replied.
“But the steps that we're taking here reflect some of the evidence that's been gathered from those parts of the country where these restrictions have already been put in place.”
Elsewhere, the Huffington Post said that even before Gove’s announcement that the civil service back-to-work drive was over, staff at one government department were being actively encouraged not to go out for lunch.
The site quoted a presentation sent to Home Office staff based at the department’s Marsham House headquarters that urged workers to bring their own lunches “to prevent having to go to shops and stores”.
It said that the advice – at odds with one of the government’s main objectives from the return-to-work drive – appeared to be aimed at heading off a lunchtime rush for the lifts at the building.
A Home Office response said: “We are doing all we can to ensure our staff can return to our workplaces safely and in line with Covid secure guidance.
“Staff are not prevented from leaving or entering the building if they wish to do so during their day.”
With additional reporting by Eleanor Langford of CSW's sister title Politics Home