Government urges civil servants to 'get back to offices quickly'

5 September 2020, 10:10 | Updated: 5 September 2020, 10:40

Civil servants are being urged to return to work
Civil servants are being urged to return to work. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

The government has reportedly urged Whitehall bosses to 'move quickly' and get staff back to the office.

In a letter seen by media outlets, the government said it "strongly encourages" bosses to get staff back at work through rota systems.

The government said it wants 80 per cent of civil servants to be able to attend their usual workplace at least once a week by the end of September.

Sir Mark Sedwill said: "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.

"Further, we are now strongly encouraging an increased workplace attendance through staff rota systems, with our aim by the end of September to enable 80 per cent of staff to attend their usual workplace each week, for example 20% for five days, 30 per cent for three days and 30 per cent for two days, with the balance attending only occasionally for now."

The letter said it would be "hugely beneficial" for staff to return.

It follows weeks of criticism over civil servants continuing to work from home despite easing of lockdown measures.

The letter applies to staff in England, with those elsewhere in the UK expected to follow local guidance and continue working from home.

In Sir Mark Sedwill's letter he said the Prime Minister and Cabinet believed civil servants returning to their offices would be "hugely beneficial for our workforce" and "improve the public services we deliver".

He said: "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.

"There have also been challenges with bringing on board new or inexperienced colleagues and limitations in the ability to mentor and develop our people, particularly those earlier in their careers.

"This is reportedly most acute for those without easy access to high-quality home working facilities, for those in rented accommodation and for younger colleagues earlier in their careers.

"In short, it is the Government's view that on the whole there are significant benefits to be gained from working collaboratively in an office environment and, where possible, colleagues should now return to the office in line with Covid-secure levels."

However, unions have described the government's attitude as outdated, saying most civil servants should expect to keep working from home until the end of the year and that they fear an increased risk of catching coronavirus when back with colleagues.

Boris Johnson has also asked officials for a weekly update on progress.

Number 10 said in a statement there was "no update" on how many civil servants were back in their workplaces.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman told reporters: "We would expect to see more civil servants returning to their workplaces over the next coming weeks.

"The permanent secretaries in individual departments are taking forward the work to return civil servants to the workplace, they are setting out their own plans, making sure that offices and other work spaces are Covid-secure and they are providing updates to the Cabinet Office permanent secretary."

It comes as the Government said adverts would be appearing this weekend reminding employers of how to make their workplaces Covid-secure.

But Downing Street denied there was any campaign to encourage employees back to the office after reports the messaging blitz was to be delayed until next week.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "There has never been a 'back to work' campaign.

"As I talked about earlier in the week, we've been doing this press partnership campaign with regional and local media and that is sponsored content on a variety of topics to do with the coronavirus response.

"It is also looking at some sponsored content to reiterate and guide people to our guidance on returning safely to work.

"You can expect that content to be placed with our partners shortly."

The Prime Minister's spokesman added: "What you'll see over the weekend is directing businesses towards the safer workplace guidance that is on (website) through some paid, own and other media channels which the Government has been using."

He said the purpose was to ensure "more people can spend some of their time working from the office".

The Cabinet Office has been running the "partnership" campaign since June, using local and regional media to produce "wraparounds" and other tools to get the Government's Covid-19 messages across, said the spokesman.

Asked why the Government was not running a national "back to work" campaign, Mr Johnson's spokesman said: "We are promoting how to make your workplace Covid-secure so more people can work from the office.

"What we've also done is change the guidance to give employers more discretion over how their employees can work safely.

"The PM does want to see people discussing their working arrangements with their employers."

"More than half" of staff in one Government department are back in work, a minister has said, after pictures showed parts of the capital still empty of office workers.

On Tuesday evening, pictures from the previously bustling City of London showed empty streets and Tube stations at rush hour after the Prime Minister said people were returning "in huge numbers to the office".

Downing Street could not provide figures to back up the claims.

Boris Johnson's spokesman said: "I don't have the figures especially for today but you can expect to see more civil servants return to the office over the coming weeks with the return of Parliament and children to schools.

"We've been clear with departments that they need to ensure Government workspaces are Covid-secure and permanent secretaries have been undertaking the work to return civil servants to the office or workplace."