Covid Inquiry: 2020 back-to-office drive ‘made absolutely no sense’

Government ditched science and followed media and Conservative MPs, former No.10 comms chief Lee Cain says
Lee Cain said Johnson was "torn" between virus projections and demands from media and MPs. Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

02 Nov 2023

The government’s short-lived decision to encourage people back to work in autumn 2020 was driven by elements of the media and a right-wing rump of Conservative MPs – and flew in the face of scientific advice, the Covid Inquiry has heard.

Former No.10 communications director Lee Cain told the inquiry this week that the drive was a source of “great frustration” and was also at odds with sentiment in business and among the public – as well as among health-protection professionals.

Cain said on Wednesday that then-prime minister Boris Johnson had been “torn” between projections that there would have to be further lockdown measures to stem the resurgence of Covid and demands for a return to business as usual from the Daily Telegraph and Conservative MPs.

Cain said that he and other comms professionals were placed in a “very, very difficult” position because of the signals that were being sent to the public.

“At this point of developing policy, we are indicating to people that: Covid's over, go back out, get back to work, crowd yourself onto trains, go into restaurants and enjoy pizzas with friends and family, you know, really build up that social mixing,” he said.

“Now, that is fine if you are intent on never having to do suppression measures again, but from all of the evidence we were receiving, it was incredibly clear we were certainly going to have to do suppression again. We knew that all the way through. That was the strategy from the start.”

Cain said there was no clamour for a return to pre-pandemic working arrangements on the part of the public or employers in the autumn of 2020 and it appeared that the government was a lone actor in the drive.

“Business wasn't even asking for people to come back into work. In fact, they were encouraging their employees to stay at home still... we developed all of these tools for remote working,” Cain said.

“Government seemed to be on its own demanding people go to work when the research we had was saying people were still quite cautious. Businesses were feeding back they didn't want to do it, the scientific opinion was that we were going to have to have another lockdown.”

“So to me, it made absolutely no sense whatsoever why we were talking about getting everyone back to work. And that was the stories that ended up being on the front pages, which was a cause of great frustration.”

There was particular pressure on civil servants to return to offices in this period, with permanent secretaries told at the beginning of September to get 80% of staff back into the workplace by the end of the month.

Inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor KC asked Cain if he had made his concerns about the return-to-work drive in autumn 2020 and August 2020’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme clear in government at the time. He said that he had.

The government’s autumn 2020 back-to-office drive was brought to a close in late September of that year because of increasing infection rates.

Evidence to the inquiry last month included a WhatsApp exchange between future cabinet secretary Simon Case and then-health secretary Matt Hancock suggesting Eat Out to Help Out was causing “problems” in the Department of Health and Social Care’s “intervention areas”.

Hancock said he had managed to keep details out of the media, but pleaded for there to be no extension of the scheme, which was the brainchild of then-chancellor Rishi Sunak.   

Cain’s written statement to the inquiry said HM Treasury had been understandably concerned about how long the country could sustain lockdowns and other “severe” measures to limit the spread of Covid. It added that Johnson had encouraged the department to look at ways to “boost” the economy.

But the former comms chief said that much like the back-to-work drive, Eat Out to Help Out “sent the wrong message to the country at a time when we were also trying to urge caution and keep social interaction limited and the virus under control”.

The inquiry continues.

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