Matt Hancock has said he cares more about how well his civil servants “perform” in their jobs than whether or not they return to the office, amid pressure on Whitehall to set an example after months of lockdown.
The health secretary said he had “absolutely no idea” what percentage of staff in his department had returned to the office amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
And he heaped praise on officials for “delivering at an unbelievable rate“ during the crisis.
Ministers have been under pressure to encourage civil servants to go back to their offices rather than working remotely amid warnings that city centres are suffering from a lack of footfall.
But the government has so far declined to give figures for the number of officials heading back in, while civil service trade unions have accused the press of “trying to shame civil servants back to offices”.
Pressed on the percentage of civil servants now working in the Department for Health and Social Care's offices, Hancock told Times Radio: “I have absolutely no idea. What I care about is how effectively people work.
“And obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job, and also, obviously employers need to make sure the offices are Covid-19 secure as we have obviously in the Department for Health as you would fully expect us to.
“But what I care about is that people perform.”
Hancock said some of his staff were currently “working from home, some come in sometimes, some are in full-time”.
But he added: “What matters to me is that they deliver and, and frankly they've been delivering at an unbelievable rate.
“There's sometimes this caricature that the people who work in the civil service work a nine-to-five day. It's just completely untrue, in my experience.
“And people are working incredibly hard, because ultimately it's a mission-driven job.
“And in the middle of a pandemic the whole department has stepped up to that mission.”
Boris Johnson last month changed the government’s advice on working remotely, shifting from advising the country to “work from home if you can” to telling people they should begin returning to the workplace at the “discretion” of their employers.
But analysis of mobile phone data, obtained by The Times, suggests the public remain reluctant to head in, with the data showing that, at the start of August, 17% of people had returned to work in the 63 biggest cities — the same proportion as at the end of June.
In London, just 13% had returned.
Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, who heads up the CBI business lobby group, has warned that offices “are vital drivers of our economy” as she urged ministers to do more to encourage people to stop working from home.
“The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day," she said.
“Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.”
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this article first appeared.