Civil servants have been ordered to return to the office, with government departments told to rapidly get back to “full occupancy” after the lifting of plan B Covid-19 restrictions in England.
But the announcement on Friday night sets up a clash between the government and unions, who have warned against a “headlong rush” back to workplaces with coronavirus cases still high. Across the UK, 95,787 positive tests were reported on Friday.
No date was provided for the return but Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, said it was important to maximise the use of office space from next week.
“Now we are learning to live with Covid and have lifted plan B measures, we need to move away from a reliance on video meetings and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working,” Barclay said.
He is expected to raise the issue at cabinet next week and urged ministers to make sure their offices were working at full capacity as soon as possible, the Cabinet Office said in a statement.
Barclay’s call for government departments to enable a return to full capacity was echoed by Alex Chisholm, the Cabinet Office’s permanent secretary and chief operating officer of the civil service, who has written to leaders across Whitehall asking them to support a significant and swift return of staff to the workplace.
The government move, which is also designed to boost footfall in city centres, comes as businesses edge slowly back to the office. The London underground network recorded 8% more journeys on Thursday compared with a week earlier.
Companies providing flexible office space said they were already experiencing a rise in demand as businesses and their staff returned to offices in greater numbers and adopted hybrid working patterns.
The number of visitors to UK city centres outside London was up nearly 2% on Thursday compared with the same day a week before and almost 4% higher in the capital.
Before the Cabinet Office announcement, the Public and Commercial Services union said it was demanding that departments consult unions and health and safety representatives on any plans for a return to workplaces.
The PCS, which was among civil service unions that met the Cabinet Office on Thursday to discuss what the changes in government policy mean for members working for the civil service in England, said its position remained that it was safer for staff to work from home where they could, given the continuing threat from coronavirus.
There is also resistance from the FDA, which represents senior civil servants and believes the world of work has changed for good.
Dave Penman, the FDA’s general secretary, said: “Today’s announcement has more to do with moving attention away from the prime minister’s troubles than it has to do with how the civil service operates.
“All the evidence shows that across the economy, hybrid working is being embraced, delivering efficiencies for employers and flexibility for employees. Despite this, ministers are clinging to an ideology of presenteeism that demonstrates they are out of touch with how the world of work has changed since the pandemic began.”
The Cabinet Office said measures had been put in place in government buildings to reassure staff and allow the transition back to office working, including increased ventilation and improved cleaning routines. It added that there was no government requirement or recommendation for employers to limit capacity in the workplace.