A defiant civil service union boss has hit back at Boris Johnson’s call to return to the office by accusing the Prime Minister of trying to shame government workers back to desks.
Mr Johnson last night set a target of four in five workers to return to Whitehall each week by the end of the month, with mandarins also providing weekly figures on staff numbers to monitor progress.
However, Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents managers and professionals in public service, said there has been an ‘industrial revolution’ towards home working.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents managers and professionals in public service, said there has been an ‘industrial revolution’ towards home working
He told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘If you look at what’s happened over the last six months, as well as transforming themselves into home-based service, the civil service has had to transform its priorities.
‘It had to deal with a six-fold increase in Universal Credit, had to develop the furlough scheme to support nine million workers, all while it was 95% home-based. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it’s less effective.
‘Do you think you’re going to lecture the private sector about what’s efficient? Are they simply going to say ‘this has been working, but because civil servants are coming back into Whitehall, we’re going to tell our staff they’ve got to come back even though it’s working for us now’?
‘This idea that the government is going to lecture the private sector about what’s good for it, and virtue signal with the civil service is a fool’s errand.
‘There has been this industrial revolution and ministers have just let that pass them by and instead have these pronouncements on high, dreaming of rotas in cabinet about how civil servants are going to get back to the office.’
Mr Penman also accused the government of trying to ‘shame’ workers through coverage of how few have been commuting in to return to desks via the media.
The Prime Minister’s drive is part of a desperate bid to rescue the economy, during a year in which GDP has plummeted as a result of the crisis.
At the beginning of lockdown there were 423,000 civil servants employed full time by Whitehall departments.
The Prime Minister set a target of four in five workers to return to Whitehall each week by the end of the month
A graph shows how the United Kingdom’s GDP has plummeted this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic
Permanent secretaries were given instructions last night to ‘move quickly’ to ‘bring more staff back into the office’, taking advantage of the return to schools and increased public transport services.
In a letter to all Whitehall ministries and seen by the Mail, Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief Alex Chisholm said the Prime Minister has ‘made clear his aim is to get as many people back to workplaces as possible’ in a safe way.
At a Cabinet meeting earlier this week, they said ministers had agreed that ‘increasing both the number of people in the office and the amount of time those people spend in the office’ would be ‘hugely beneficial’ for the civil service.
‘The Prime Minister is also clear that getting more people back into work in a Covid secure way will improve the public services we deliver, and will also provide a significant boost to the local economies where they are based,’ they added.
The letter warned that the huge numbers of civil servants working from home had led to a ‘reduced level of social interaction among our colleagues, with the loss of some of the spontaneous interaction and cross fertilisation between teams that drives innovation and sustained common purpose’.
It added: ‘There have also been challenges with bringing on board new or inexperienced colleagues and limitations in the ability to mentor and develop our people.
‘In short, it is the Government’s view that on the whole there are significant benefits to be gained from working collaboratively in an office environment and where possible colleagues should now return to the office in line with Covid-secure levels.’
The civil service heads said the aim is for 80 per cent of staff to ‘attend their usual workplace each week’ by using a rota system that will see some come in for only two or three days.
In a letter to all Whitehall ministries Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief Alex Chisholm said the Prime Minister’s ‘aim is to get as many people back to workplaces as possible’ in a safe way
The push is a victory for the Mail, which has called for more civil servants to go back to their desks to set an example for the rest of the country.
In a sign that action is finally being taken, Home Office staff were told yesterday that they would be expected back promptly.
The department’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft said it would enable them to carry out a ‘full and effective performance’.
The Mail has continued to monitor staffing levels across Whitehall, with as few as 5 per cent of staff turning up to work at ministries this week.
As millions of pupils returned to classrooms this week, it was likely to be a busy week at the offices of the Department for Education, which accommodated up to 2,000 staff before the pandemic.
Yet only 103 staff arrived at its seven-floor headquarters on Tuesday and 120 on Thursday – accounting for just six per cent of capacity.
At the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where 1,800 staff usually work, the number of staff just broke into triple figures.