Plans to get employees back into their workplace in a bid to revive the economy have been scrapped, with Boris Johnson telling office staff to work from home if they can.
The Prime Minister had led calls for staff to return to the workplace in response to concerns that cafes and other businesses which rely on demand from commuters and office workers were facing ruin.
But as coronavirus cases have risen, Mr Johnson said: “We are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so.”
He stressed this was not a “general instruction to stay at home”, telling MPs: “In key public services – and in all professions where homeworking is not possible, such as construction or retail – people should continue to attend their workplaces.”
But efforts to get 80% of civil servants back working in Whitehall appear to have been abandoned, although officials insisted key staff would be in place.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Public sector workers working in essential services should continue to go into work where necessary.
“Anyone who cannot work from home should continue to go to work in a Covid-secure work setting such as those working in sectors like production and manufacturing, hospitality and retail and obviously education and health settings.”
The spokesman said the measures were part of a package to “help to reduce contact, to break transmission between different households and to limit outbreaks”.
“But obviously we want to do that in a way that provides as little disruption as possible, because many businesses already have systems in place to support remote working.”
Parliament is expected to carry on sitting in the way it has done since new coronavirus procedures were introduced.
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) September 22, 2020
“There isn’t any change in regard to the advice for MPs, I think we would treat that grouping as one which is providing an essential service,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman said.
In the civil service, those working in essential services should continue to go in to Covid-secure workplaces – for example, those administering passport and driving licence applications.
In Whitehall, permanent secretaries will agree with their ministers who needs to be in the office to maintain “full delivery of public services”.
The change comes 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”.
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”.
Downing Street later denied the existence of a Government “back to work” publicity campaign, following reports of a rift over whether the timing was right to be encouraging staff to return to their desks.