Saturday, 26 Sep 2020

Call for civil servants to return to office branded 'virtue signalling'

A civil service union boss has accused Boris Johnson of trying to shame government workers into going back to their desks.

He hit out at the PM after outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill wrote to the heads of government departments calling on them to bring as much as 80% of public sector staff back into the workplace.

The prime minister is keen for civil servants to lead from the front on the return to work and wants weekly figures on staff numbers to monitor progress.

Ministers fear huge job losses in town and city centre shops and cafes if workers do not return to their pre-lockdown commuter patterns soon.

Sir Mark said departments should ‘move quickly to seek to bring more staff back into the office in a Covid-secure way’.

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

But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, a union representing civil servants, said there has been an ‘industrial revolution’ towards home working that the government needs to wake up to.

He told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘If you look at what’s happened over the last six months, as well as transforming themselves into home-based service, the civil service has had to transform its priorities. 

‘It had to deal with a six-fold increase in Universal Credit, had to develop the furlough scheme to support nine million workers, all while it was 95% home-based. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it’s less effective.’

Mr Penman also accused the government of trying to ‘shame’ workers through coverage of how few have been commuting in to return to desks via the media.

He argued government targets would be difficult to achieve as Whitehall was already ‘oversubscribed’ even before Covid restrictions were introduced.

He branded the letter ‘virtue signalling’ and suggested getting the public sector back in the office would not make a different to private companies that have found working from home effective.

He added: ‘It is quite clear from the letter that has been sent out, this is really about virtue signalling to the private sector that has already moved on.

‘You’re not telling me that the big financial houses in the City of London would be having their staff working remotely if it wasn’t working effectively for them.’

Figures published on Friday suggest employees are beginning to curtail their work from home habits.

According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there has been an increase in people travelling to work in the last two months, with fewer working exclusively from home.

Transport for London has also recorded more passengers using both the Tube and buses throughout the week.

It said 630,000 passengers used the London Underground network on Friday from the start of service until 10am – 21.1% higher than during the same period last week. although still 69.2% lower than the same period last year.

Bus journeys in the capital were also up 29.6% on last week, but down 50.8% on 2019.

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