'This is an anxious time for many of you': Sedwill urges caution as civil servants return to workplaces

'As normal government business resumes, more of us will now need to be in the workplace'


The cabinet secretary with PM Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Sir Mark Sedwill has urged civil servants to observe social distancing measures as coronavirus lockdown rules are eased and government offices begin to open up again.

In an internal memo to officials, the cabinet secretary said civil service working patterns were likely to shift in the coming weeks.

"You should continue to work from home when you can, but many colleagues have had to operate from workplaces throughout the lockdown. As normal government business resumes, more of us will now need to be in the workplace for some of the time to carry out essential work," he wrote.


"Please ensure you follow the guidelines in your part of the country. All departments and administrations will apply the hygiene and social distancing measures necessary for Covid-secure working for those who do need to come in. If that includes you, try to avoid rush hours and stay safe if you use public transport."

The vast majority of civil servants have been working remotely since lockdown measures came into force in March. Asked about their working practices in a series of parliamentary written questions last month, only two departments – the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs – said a double-digit percentage of employees were working from government premises.

"You have set an example of resilience and personal responsibility for all our fellow citizens," Sedwill said.

"As a country, we have confronted this virus together. As it is brought under control nationwide, our focus will shift to dealing with local rather than national outbreaks," he added.

Each government organisation will set out guidance for its employees on when and how they can return to their offices if they have been working remotely, following an announcement by the prime minister last week that lockdown measures would be gradually eased.

In guidance sent to staff last month, the Home Office said some civil servants could expect to work from home for the next 12 months.

The department said it would take a phased approach that would see staff return to the office in groups, beginning with those whose work required them to be in an office, followed by those whose wellbeing would suffer if they continued to work remotely.

Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft and second perm sec Shona Dunn said in their message to staff that they should not expect to return to their usual workplace "any time soon".

“It is important that no one makes their own decisions about returning to the workplace and no business areas should assume they will revert to their old footprint,” they said.

In his message today, Sedwill said the announcement that lockdown measures were being eased would be "a relief and consolation to many, as we start to take the next careful steps towards re-starting our economy and wider society".

But he added: "I know from my engagement with our staff networks that this is an anxious time for many of you, particularly those from ethnic minorities given the emerging evidence from [Publlic Healh England] and others, but also people juggling caring responsibilities, worried about their families, or managing in the context of existing health conditions."

Public Health England is expected to publish a report this week examining the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

"It’s more important than ever that we look out for one another, and that we listen to our colleagues’ individual experiences. I know leaders across the civil service are committed to supporting all of our people, and with your help we will continue to do so in the coming months," the cab sec said.

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