Plans to get staff back into their workplace in a bid to revive the economy have been scrapped, as the Government looks to curb a surge in coronavirus cases.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told Sky News on Tuesday that people who are able to work from home are now being encouraged to do so, signalling a U-turn in official advice.
The “shift in emphasis” comes just weeks after a drive to get employees to return to their offices, as ministers sought to boost commuter-focused businesses.
Parodied by comedian Matt Lucas in a viral video afterwards, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in May that anyone who cannot work from home “should be actively encouraged to go to work”.
“And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited,” he told the public.
“So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”
A further easing of the lockdown restrictions from August 1 meant that it was up to employers to discuss with workers whether it was safe to return.
Announcing the measures, Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that employers “should be encouraging people to get back to work where that is right for that employee”.
But his comments appeared at odds with his chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, at the time, who said there was “absolutely no reason” to change the working from home advice.
The new messaging applied only to England, with Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford saying shortly afterwards that his government’s advice to workers remained to “stay at home and work from home” if able to do so.
At the end of August, the Government faced a backlash over plans to use a messaging blitz to encourage employees back to work following the coronavirus lockdown.
An unnamed source suggested to The Telegraph that those opting to keep working from home could make themselves “vulnerable” to redundancy in any post-Covid business shake-ups.
But devolution leaders, opposition MPs, trade unions and Britain’s equality watchdog hit out at the intention to target those still working from home and condemned the tone of the off-the-record briefing to the press.
Labour shadow business minister Lucy Powell called the language “unconscionable”, while Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she would not “intimidate people back to work”.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps reinforced the Government’s messaging and said there was a “limit” to working from home – striking a different tone to his Cabinet colleague Matt Hancock.
The Health Secretary said he had “absolutely no idea” how many Department of Health civil servants had returned to the office, adding that he cared more that they were doing their jobs effectively.
Downing Street later denied the existence of a Government “back to work” campaign, following reports of a rift over whether the timing was right to be encouraging staff to return to their desks.
The Telegraph reported the launch of the campaign for home working was put back, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “There has never been a ‘back to work’ campaign.”
Meanwhile, a row broke out over a push to get as much as 80% of civil servants back into the workplace by the end of September.
Outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill wrote to the permanent secretaries of Government departments, in a letter seen by the PA news agency dated September 3.
But the instructions faced a backlash from unions representing the Civil Service, with the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union confirming it would, as a “last resort”, consult members about possible industrial action.
Mr Gove told Sky News on Tuesday that the target for getting people back to Whitehall had been shelved.