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The Chancellor is rallying Britons to return to the office as soon as the Government’s “work from home” guidance lifts, declaring it “really important” for younger staff.
Rishi Sunak conceded that operating remotely via Zoom during the pandemic had been “not great” for workers at the beginning of their careers, who find face-to-face interaction particularly “valuable”.
Signalling his strong support for workers to return to the office at step four of the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of restrictions, scheduled for July 19, he said: “I think for young people, especially, that ability to be in your office, be in your workplace and learn from others more directly, is something that's really important and I look forward to us slowly getting back to that.”
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The Telegraph spent an afternoon with the Chancellor in Wolverhampton to make a short film, released on Friday, examining government support for businesses and jobs during the pandemic.
He revealed that more than a third of the working population had received state support during the Covid crisis, including through the furlough and self-employment support schemes.
Looking ahead to the future, Mr Sunak sounded an upbeat note on the recovery, declaring that the economy’s “engine is roaring” and “moving up a gear” as restrictions were lifted, with the final curbs set to be scrapped on July 19.
His assessment came amid analysts’ prediction of a post-crisis consumer spending boom this summer. It also coincided with the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighting the “astonishing” return of real earnings growth and unemployment to pre-pandemic levels in the wake of major economic disruption.
Mr Sunak nonetheless faces tough decisions later this year, including over the pensions triple lock, a manifesto pledge.
He gave his strongest signal yet that the Government could suspend the mechanism, amid concerns it could lead to a record-breaking eight per cent rise in the state pension as a result of artificial trends sparked by Covid.
Acknowledging “concerns” about the lock, which he said were “reasonable”, he hinted it could be altered, stressing that the Treasury must show “fairness” towards the taxpayer as well as pensioners.
The Chancellor also addressed the rapid rise in coronavirus cases, but said it remained “our intention” to ensure that unlocking later this month was irreversible.
The success of the vaccination programme, which had “significantly broken” the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths, had given ministers “confidence” to abolish measures as the vaccine rollout progressed. “Even with rising case numbers, the hospitalisation numbers are at a manageable level,” he said.
Mr Sunak addressed the return to offices after meeting apprentices at a car mechanic training centre in the West Midlands city, noting that they were “super-excited to be back in their workplace”.
He added: “They were over the moon, because they've spent six months trying to learn on Zoom and Teams and everything else, and it hasn't been great.
“They were saying actually being in, and most importantly, getting the support from their mentors, has been really valuable to them.”
The Chancellor stressed, however, that it was “not for the Government to start mandating exactly what people should and shouldn't do in this circumstance”, insisting “we've got to get away from that”.
While making his own views about the benefits of the workplace known, he said: “Ultimately I trust people and businesses to make decisions for themselves.”
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While all legal restrictions are due to end on July 19, the Government has faced a backlash from Tory MPs and businesses after announcing that fully vaccinated people must still follow self-isolation rules until August 16, instead of moving to a test and release system sooner.
In response to the anger of hospitality chiefs, who have warned the system could wreak “carnage” on their sector by forcing pubs and restaurants to close if a single employee tests positive, Mr Sunak said: “I understand people’s frustrations with it, I totally get that.”
He insisted, however, that it was “appropriate” for the Government to pursue a “balanced approach” to changing the regulations, adding that the unlocking set for later this month was a “big deal”.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted throughout the day, Mr Sunak visited a PureGym branch and spoke of his fondness for spinning fitness classes.
While the Chancellor is known to be a fan of Peloton, the cult stationary exercise bike that is beloved by celebrities, he said: “I miss being back at the gym... I love gym classes. It’s more motivating than sitting at home in front of an iPad or video screen.”
He added: “Focusing on our fitness is important, focusing on our health is important and it’s just more fun to do it in a class … with music pumping.”
While touring Wolverhampton Art Gallery, the Chancellor also disclosed his passion for contemporary painting and sculpture, which he shares with his wife, Akshata Murthy.
“My wife and I, probably our favourite British artists are Harland Miller and Raqib Shaw, both of whom we absolutely love,” he said.
Miller, who comes from Yorkshire, where the Chancellor represents the constituency of Richmond, is known for large-scale, photo-realistic paintings and posters, as well as prints of vintage Penguin book covers.
Shaw is an Indian-born, London-based artist who commonly uses jewels and enamel to embellish images of paradise.
The Chancellor said he was “very lucky” to be able to “tap into the government art collection” to furnish his Downing Street apartment and office. He has also brought some of his own art with him to his flat.