The government is backing away from suggestions of a mass return of workers to offices this week, with one cabinet minister acknowledging that employers will not have the capacity to accommodate all staff at their desks in a Covid-secure way.
Senior Tory backbencher Robert Halfon insisted that it should be for employers not ministers to decide when it is safe for workers to return, warning that the Conservatives must not be seen to demand that “everyone must march from the suburbs to the cities in some sort of forced collectivisation”.
But environment secretary George Eustice this morning indicated that a back-to-work publicity drive expected to kick off at the end of this week will focus instead on reassurance that workplaces are safe. Downing Street sources said that a series of ads appearing in regional and national press from next weekend will highlight messages about making offices Covid-secure and encouraging safe means of travelling to and from work, rather than exhorting employees to return to their desks.
Mr Eustice said he had set no target for proportions of civil servants to be at their desks in his own Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and made clear he believed that the return to normal working conditions after five months is likely to be gradual.
“You have to make sure people come back in a socially distanced way,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“That means you may have not the capacity to have a full return for everyone to office. It may be that some people work from home some days and come in on some days, but we do want to start getting more people back into an office environment. We’re working on how to do that, along with everybody else.”
“We don’t have a target, other than to make sure that it’s safe for people to return to work, even if that does require, for instance, fewer work-stations so you won’t get a 100% return to work.
“But we want to ensure that as many people as possible are able to return to work, even if it’s for some days a week and you don’t have an entire team in every day. That’s the kind of approach we’ll be taking and it’s sort of approach many other businesses, I’m sure, will do too.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is known to be alarmed at the apparent reluctance of workers to return to offices, leaving the centres of cities like London eerily quiet on weekdays, with a damaging knock-on effect on businesses like cafes, sandwich shops and restaurants which rely on the presence of thousands of commuters for their financial viability.
Official figures show that on Monday last week, trains carried only 28 per cent of their normal passenger loads, while the proportion stood at 45 per cent for buses.
There are hopes that the return of students to schools in England and Wales this week will free up many parents to leave the home and go back to their workplaces.
But some major companies have signalled a more long-term shift towards home-working, raising fears about a collapse in the value of high-rent business premises in city centres and the future viability of commuter transport networks.
But Downing Street is aware it must tread carefully, after the hostile response to last week’s suggestions that bosses may find it easier to hand out P45s to home-workers who they do not regularly see at their work-stations.
The briefing was denounced as an “absolute disgrace” by Labour’s shadow business secretary Lucy Powell, while the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford told the PA news agency: “I think what is not the answer is a government trying to bully people and to see the kind of threats that we’ve had about people losing their jobs. The public recognise that this virus has not gone away, that there is a risk.”
Mr Halfon, who has been an influential champion of ordinary workers’ interests within the Tory party, told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “It should be up to the employers to decide.
“Obviously it’s great if you’ve got vibrant and bustling cities, but we shouldn’t get ourselves into a position where we’re seen as Tories saying this is what an employer must do and everyone must march from the suburbs to the cities in some sort of forced collectivisation. I think that employers are best to know whether or not their employees can be in.”
The TUC is calling for mandatory publication of health and safety risk assessments detailing measures companies are taking to make workplaces Covid-secure.
General secretary Frances O’Grady said that some companies were “playing fast and loose with the rules”.
She told Times Radio there were “cowboys out there” and that companies should be required to release risk assessments “so staff and the whole community can see for ourselves whether employers are taking this seriously”.
Mr Eustice stressed that some businesses, such as construction and food, had developed procedures allowing them to continue to work almost throughout the coronavirus lockdown.
He said: “Our central message is it is safe to return to work and that employers should work with their employees to identify how they can do so safely.
“There are lots of working environments that have managed to get people returning to work safely.
“The advice previously has been on office work ‘If you can work from home, do so’. But we increasingly just need to keep the progress towards getting people back to something closer to normal.
“That’s why our message is, it is safe to return to work. And we hope that employers will work with their employees to try to get more people back into an office environment.”