Boris Johnson has been accused of “Trump playbook” tactics after he declared that “huge numbers” of people returned to work on Tuesday – despite not having any figures to back up his claims.
In remarks recorded by TV cameras, the prime minister told the cabinet that many more workers were back at work.
But even Downing Street could not supply any evidence for the statement, and it emerged later that in greater London bus use rose by just 6% and Tube rose by 8% week-on-week.
“People are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country – and quite right, too,” he told ministers gathered in a socially-distanced room at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
But as social media users pointed to empty streets and train stations in big cities, his official spokesperson admitted that there were no publicly available statistics for any return.
Asked for evidence for the “huge numbers” remarks, the spokesperson said: “Schools have largely gone back today.
“You wouldn’t expect me to be in a position to share numbers today but what the government has done is say there’s that greater discretion for employers over how employees can work safely, including returning to a Covid-secure workplace.
“You have children going back to school today. That of course will allow parents greater flexibility about returning to the office. It is too soon for us to be able to share figures with you on people returning to work today, [but] the message from the PM is he recognises the importance that returning to work has in stimulating the economy.”
The No.10 spokesperson added: “Also, there are benefits of office working for staff, including the benefits of face-to-face meetings with their colleagues. But individual employers will of course make their own decision based on their own individual circumstances.”
Asked again directly what evidence the PM had for his claim, the spokesperson replied: “People will be returning to the office after the summer break and also children going back to school gives parents some added flexibility.”
Transport for London then issued figures for the capital on Tuesday morning, which suggested nothing like a “huge” shift in a return to office working.
figures from @TfL from this morning show the extent to which workers have NOT returned en masse:
- Tube use down 72% on same day last year
- Bus use down 53% on same day last year
- Tube use up 8% on same day last week
- Bus use up 6% on same day last week
— Jim Pickard (@PickardJE) September 1, 2020
The spokesperson disputed reporters’ suggestions that train stations were far from busy but conceded that figures on the numbers of people using public transport had yet to be provided by the Department for Transport.
Twitter users compared Johnson’s claims to Donald Trump’s claims that his inauguration in 2017 had seen the biggest crowd in the history of such events.
Boris Johnson: "People are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country, and quite right too."
Straight out of the Trump "biggest inauguration crowd in history" playbook. An entirely evidence-free assertion that plays well to his base.
— Edwin Hayward 🦄 🗡 (@uk_domain_names) September 1, 2020
— skullsinthestars - Black lives matter (@drskyskull) August 29, 2020
Trump had claimed that he had delivered his inauguration address to a “massive field of people [...] packed” with up to 1.5m people, even though independent experts said the turnout was 600,000.
No.10 also appeared to toughen its stance on civil servants going back to work in Whitehall, although it had no figures on how many staff were still working at home.
“I wouldn’t have those figures specifically for today but you can expect to see more civil servants return to the office in coming weeks with the return of parliament and the return of children to schools.
“We do want to see more civil servants back in the office.”
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader and party chair, told HuffPost UK: “The Prime Minister’s incompetence is clear for all to see, despite his desperate attempts to distract the public from how out of touch he is.
“Instead of briefing out scripted remarks that don’t seem to be backed up by any actual figures, the Prime Minister should focus on the job in hand: ensuring schools are safe, finally delivering a functioning test and trace system and avoiding a huge wave of unemployment this autumn.”
In his remarks to the Cabinet, Johnson added: Of course we know that there is still going to be more of this disease, this wretched Covid, still to come.
“And although we know there will be more outbreaks we are also 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.”
No.10 pointed out that just 40% of schools in England were reopening on Tuesday, as part of a gradual return of pupils through the week. It said that the first fair date for any figures on school returns would be on September 15.
The PM’s spokesperson also revealed that later this week the government would run its latest phase of its “All In, All Together” campaign in regional and local media.
“What that will look at is reiterating our guidance on how to return safely to work,” he said.
“Some of the things we’ve looked at so far is the support that is available to businesses, how to shop safely and also what people need to know about NHS Test and Trace.
“The next phase we’ll look at is specifically the guidance on how to get back to work safely, and you can expect to see that later this week.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.