Coronavirus: Row over Government's call for workers to return to offices

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

A row has broken out between businesses, unions and the government as Number 10 steps up its bid for employees to return to the office after the coronavirus lockdown.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, in an interview from his home, told businesses and employees it is now safe to return to the workplace amid fears town and city centres are becoming ghost areas as commuters stay away.

But a Daily Telegraph article published on Friday has sparked anger after an unnamed Government source suggested those opting to work from home could make themselves more “vulnerable” to redundancy.

Mr Shapps was asked by ITV News if the source who gave the quote was wrong, to which he replied: “I am always very sceptical when I hear Government source. I don’t know who that would mean.

Grant Shapps on whether people working from home will be more 'vulnerable' to redundancy

“However, I am quite certain it wouldn’t have been a minister.”

When asked again if there was any truth in the statement, Mr Shapps failed to provide any clarity, adding: “Schools are returning, people are therefore returning, particularly where people who have got kids at school.

“It makes it easier to return to work, we know that’s happening, we know that’s safe to do, but it will look quite different and it will require some adjustments and some people will continue to work from home.”

Labour shadow business minister Lucy Powell hit back at the remarks, calling them “unconscionable” and demanded Downing Street “condemn this briefing”.

She said: “It beggars belief that the Government are threatening people like this during a pandemic.”

Boris Johnson has been urging people to return to the office for more than a month but his pleas have largely been ignored by many businesses.

But with the furlough scheme beginning to wind down by October, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak refusing to rule out an extension, the Government is keen to get people back into old habits and kickstart the economy.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Shapps said: “I think there’s a limit, just in human terms, to remote working.

“And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress.”

Mr Shapps said a “buzz” is being felt again in his own Department for Transport building in central London as officials return, with management “encouraging people back now”.

He struck a different tone to his Cabinet colleague Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who on Thursday said he had “absolutely no idea” how many Department of Health civil servants have returned to the office and added he cares more that they are doing their jobs effectively.

City centres could end up like ghost towns, some senior business figures have warned. Credit: PA

Ministers could face an uphill battle in motivating staff back into town and city centre workplaces after newly-published research suggested employees would like to continue home working after the pandemic.

Nine out of 10 people in the UK who have worked from home during lockdown want to continue doing so, according to the report, called Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, said ministers need to accept the “world of work has changed”.

The leader of the civil service union said: “Millions of employees are working from home very successfully whilst employers are recognising that the world of work has changed and are embracing it.

“The genie won’t fit back in the bottle, best not try.”

But Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, warned of the “costs of office closures”.

She said: “Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade.

“This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.”

However, Dame Carolyn also admitted that CBI staff were not due back in the office until 2021.

Former Tory chairman Mr Shapps admitted there are “challenges” for the public transport network when it came to dealing with greater passenger numbers.

But he stressed trains and buses are much less full than before the pandemic, making social distancing while wearing a face covering possible even if more people opt to revive their commute to work.

Many commuters services have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: PA

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: “At the moment the trains are – all the public transport is – very much underused, probably at about a third of its usual levels.

“We think now, with the guidance that is in place… that there is capacity now for more people on public transport.”

As workplaces reopen, all employers need to carry out Covid-19 risk assessments and should seek input from staff on introducing safety measures.

Tom Neil, a senior adviser at workplace experts Acas, said: “If an employee is worried about catching coronavirus by going into work, they should talk to their employer as early as possible.

“An employer should listen to any concerns an employee may have and seek to reassure them by highlighting measures already taken.”