'More wretched Covid to come, but UK is getting back on its feet', says Boris Johnson

1 September 2020, 13:32 | Updated: 1 September 2020, 14:30

The Prime Minister has returned to Downing Street to attend a cabinet meeting
The Prime Minister has returned to Downing Street to attend a cabinet meeting. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Boris Johnson has told ministers that there is "more of this wretched Covid to come, but the UK is getting back on its feet" on their first day back after summer recess.

The Prime Minister told his cabinet: "People are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country - and quite right too.

"Of course we know there is still going to be more of this disease - this wretched COVID - still to come.

"Although we know there will be more outbreaks, we are absolutely confident that we are going to be able to deal with those outbreaks.

"Bit by bit this incredible country is getting back on its feet and recovering from this crisis and we in this Government are committed as you all know to trying to do everything in our power to help and that is what we have been doing over the last few months and that’s what we’re going to continue to do."

His comments come as the government prepares to launch its campaign to encourage people back into their workplaces this week, while the UK is lagging "well behind" EU countries in returning to work.

However, pictures posted on social media showed empty stations and quiet carriages on the morning commute as many workers continue to stay at home.

The cabinet is meeting in full for the first time in months
The cabinet is meeting in full for the first time in months. Picture: PA

Speaking to his cabinet, Boris Johnson said: "As everybody knows this is the first day back for all of us but across the country hundreds and thousands, millions of pupils are going back to school thanks to the huge efforts of their teachers, their parents have made over the last few days and weeks.

"And I pay tribute once again to the work of the Chancellor, Rishi, and his amazing schemes, Eat Out to Help Out - how many of you have taken advantage of this? I’m shocked that you’re taking taxpayers money to do it - anyway it has been fantastically successful.

"And we will continue to get this country moving and to defeat the virus but at the same time we are getting on as you all know with delivering on our promises and we haven’t stopped, like the teachers who’ve been hard at work keeping their schools going,

"This Government has been getting on with delivering 40 more hospitals, and 20,000 more police officers, 50,000 more nurses, you know what we are doing and we are getting on with it.

"And from this crisis we will build back better in this country and we will build back faster, and we will build back greener."

Home Secretary Priti Patel attended the meeting
Home Secretary Priti Patel attended the meeting. Picture: PA

"And there will be a lot more to come about the way in which this Government is going to lead a new Green Industrial Revolution for the UK.

"And there are some very exciting announcements we are preparing to make in the autumn, that I believe will help to deliver not only a cleaner, greener country but hundreds and thousands of new green jobs across the UK.

"In the last few months we’ve been sailing into the teeth of a gale, no question.

"And I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind’s change but we have been going steadily in the direction, in the course we set out and we have not been blown off that course.

"And that is thanks to you, to the Government but it is overwhelming with thanks to the British people and the way they have come together, the way the whole country has come together to defeat the virus so thank you all for everything that you have done,

"And of course I think there is still going to be some turbulence ahead and of course things are still going to be difficult on the economic front and of course we still need to get this disease absolutely out of our systems but I am absolutely confident that if we continue in the way that we have that there will be calmer days, brighter days and calmer seas ahead of us so thank you all very much for everything that you have done.

Boris Johnson chairing the cabinet meeting
Boris Johnson chairing the cabinet meeting. Picture: PA

Only 34 per cent of Britain's white-collar workforce has returned to the office, according to President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Lord Karan Bilimoria, which is roughly half the Europe-wide average of almost 70 per cent.

Meanwhile, eight in 10 white-collar workers in France have returned to their workplaces, with Italy's number at a similar level, and seven in 10 Germans have gone back to the office.

Lord Bilimoria said: "We are well behind the curve in getting back to work."He added: "We've got to encourage people. They've got to feel confident and safe to return to work."

On Friday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told LBC the government message is that "it is now safe to return to work".

"Where it is possible, people can now return to work, it is safe to do so," he said.

"Your employer should have put in Covid-friendly measures to ensure that people can work safely from their offices because there are just things which are impossible to do from home over Zoom videos as we're doing now.

"Gradually now people will start to return to the office, but I suspect we'll see more flexible working than we've seen in the past and it will be for employers and employees to work out the right balance in their particular cases."

Labour has previously criticised the plans as being "unconscionable", while the CBI said any return to work push should involve a "hybrid" approach that did not force people to return.

Labour's shadow business minister Lucy Powell said: "It beggars belief that the government are threatening people like this during a pandemic. Forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable.

"Number 10 should condemn this briefing and categorically rule out any such campaign."

Last week, a government spokesperson said: "We are working closely with employers across the country to help them make workplaces Covid-secure and give people confidence to go back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Next week, we will showcase the benefits of returning safely to work and raise awareness of companies getting this right.

"We'll also provide practical steps businesses are taking to ensure offices are Covid-secure as well as alternative ways of travelling to work."