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Too many people worked from home during pandemic, says Sunak

Too many people ended up working from home during the Covid pandemic, Rishi Sunak has told the inquiry into the Government’s response to the virus.

The Prime Minister said there had been “over-compliance” with the stay at home order, and that other European countries had been able to keep more industries, such as construction, up and running.

The Government and employers are still struggling to get people back to work, which has led to sluggish economic growth and an increasing problem with worklessness, particularly among the over-50s.

The Bank of International Settlements said those who do work are putting in fewer hours each week since the pandemic and that people had had a “change in attitude towards work”.

Mr Sunak also said the public had forgotten that Covid measures had to be paid for, as he said higher taxes were a “direct consequence” of the pandemic.

In his written statement to the Covid Inquiry, he said the Treasury had expressed concern that there had been “over-compliance with the Government stay at home messaging during the first lockdown”.

Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the inquiry, asked whether the worry was that the public had not understood “sufficiently clearly from the Government’s communications that they should go to work only if they could not work from home”.

Mr Sunak said: “You’re right in summarising the situation. Perhaps the best example of it is in the construction industry… we’d seen what had happened in other European countries. More activity was able to be continued in Europe than was the case in the UK. Fewer people were out at work than had been anticipated.”

Businesses are still counting the cost of the shift to working from home, which has become an ingrained habit for many workers. Current estimates of the total cost of the Government response to the pandemic range from £310 billion to £410 billion – the equivalent of £4,600 to £6,100 per person.

Mr Sunak told the inquiry: “The impact of having to pay it back only comes well after the fact when everyone forgets why it was necessary. And now everyone is grappling with the consequences, I am grappling with the consequences of that, as we have a historically high tax burden that is higher than I would like.

“That is a direct consequence of the support that was provided during the pandemic and then later on, and those things are often hard to get across.”

Mr Keith, who had to remind the Prime Minister to keep his often lengthy answers “concise”,  told him: “Please don’t get on to the issue of tax burdens.”

A barrister representing ethnic minority healthcare workers was warned by Baroness Hallett, who chairs the inquiry, over a comment suggesting Mr Sunak was trying to run down the clock with lengthy answers.

Leslie Thomas KC interrupted the Prime Minister as he discussed the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, saying: “Forgive me cutting across you because time is short, and I know that you won’t be trying to talk me down on the clock.”

Lady Hallett told him: “I think that comment was inappropriate.”