Vaccines minister Nadim Zahawi was today browbeaten into acknowledging that civil servants must “lead by example” in returning to their offices in an interview that initially saw him defending remote-working arrangements among his own staff.
Zahawi’s comments came in an grilling by Nick Ferrari on the radio station LBC in which the minister said current coronavirus-related arrangements with his staff meant that between one-fifth and one-quarter of them were at their offices on any workday.
The minister, who holds briefs at both the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department of Health and Social Care, was initially defensive of the robustness of the hybrid-working system operated by his staff.
“As of this month for example, I've got something like 25% permanently back in the office on a rota system,” he said. “So all of them are back effectively, but we do a rota system so there's at least 20-25%.”
He added: “They're 100% working, it’s just making sure people come back in a safe way.”
But under pressure from Ferrari, Zahawi appeared to pledge to spearhead a return to the office among his staff. He did not specify whether he was referring to officials at BEIS, DHSC or both.
Ferrari reacted with incredulity to Zahawi’s suggestion that only 25% of his staff were back at their regular workplaces.
“One in four? Surely we can accommodate more than that,” Ferrari said. “I could fire a cannon through your department and I wouldn't hit anyone.”
Zahawi said departmental leaders would ensure staff returned to their regular workplaces “as quickly as possible and as safely as possible”.
However he added: “It's the right thing to do and I think you're right we have to lead by example. I will take your message and personally make sure we continue on this path because it's important that people come back and come back safely.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Zahawi said he was unaware of any plans for a “firebreak” lockdown in October or new rules on face masks to put the brakes on the spread of coronavirus.
A member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggested in an inews story published yesterday that the measures were part of a contingency plan put in place to deal with any rise in infections significant enough to again put the NHS at risk of overload.