Permanent secretaries have been told to “move quickly” to get 80% of their staff back to the workplace by the end of the month – sparking renewed pushback from civil service unions.
Last week outgoing cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and chief operating officer Alex Chisholm wrote to permanent secretaries to say that "getting more people back into work in a Covid-secure way will improve the public services we deliver".
‘We are now strongly encouraging an increased workplace attendance through staff rota systems, with our aim by the end of September to enable 80% of staff to attend their usual workplace each week, for example 20% for five days, 30% for three days and 30% for two days, with the balance attending only occasionally for now,” the letter, seen by the PA news agency, said.
But the target – which is understood to come from Boris Johnson – has sparked renewed pushback from unions, with one saying it could take industrial action. Another said it showed the prime minister “simply does not understand the world of work or how it is changing around him”.
In last week’s letter, which applies to departments with offices in England, the civil service bosses said it would be "hugely beneficial" for officials to spend some time at their usual workplace. Offices elsewhere in the UK are being told to follow local guidance.
Most civil servants have been working from home since coronavirus lockdown measures were introduced, with some departments having all but a handful of staff working remotely.
"We have seen a reduced level of social interaction among our colleagues, with the loss of some of the spontaneous interaction and cross-fertilisation between teams that drives innovation and sustained common purpose," Sedwill and Chisholm told department heads.
They said the prime minister was “clear” that having more people working from government offices would improve public services “and will also provide a significant boost to the local economies where they are based”.
"Departments which are still below their departmental constraints should now move quickly to seek to bring more staff back into the office in a Covid-secure way, and take advantage of the return to schools this month and increased public transport availability," they said.
'We would be prepared to consider industrial action'
But unions have slammed the imposition of a target. Mark Serwotka, head of the civil service's biggest union, PCS, said: “If the government or any employer starts forcing people back to work and we believe that it is not safe to do so we will firstly consider our legal options, secondly give individual legal advice, and thirdly consider whether a collective response is required.
“As a last resort, if you have no other option and people’s health and safety is at risk, of course we would be prepared to consider industrial action.”
And Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, said ministers who insist civil servants return to their workplaces are “increasingly sounding like Luddites”.
“Instead of sitting in cabinet, dreaming up targets and telling a world-class civil service how to organise itself, the prime minister should recognise that the world of work has changed for good and instead, get on with planning for its transition,” Penman said.
“Tokenistic, top-down targets are no way to run an organisation of hundreds of thousands of staff and betray a complete lack of understanding on how people and organisations work effectively.”
He added that rotas would take up “hours” of official time that could be spent on delivering services.
He added: “Lecturing businesses about what is good for them and imposing impractical and inefficient targets on the civil service is a clear signal that the prime minister simply does not understand the world of work or how it is changing around him.”