Boris Johnson orders civil servants to return to desks as officials try to lead from front


Get back to work! Boris Johnson orders civil servants to return to their desks as officials (belatedly) try to lead from the front

  • Prime Minister set target of four in five workers to return to Whitehall each week  
  • At beginning of lockdown there were 423,000 civil servants employed full time 
  • In a letter to Whitehall ministries it said aim is to get people back to workplaces

Boris Johnson last night ordered civil servants to get back to their desks as soon as possible.

The Prime Minister set a target of four in five workers to return to Whitehall each week by the end of the month.

Mandarins will have to provide weekly figures on staff numbers to monitor progress.

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

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

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. 

EXCERPTS FROM THE LETTER 

Dear Colleagues 

The Prime Minister is 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.

We have seen 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. 

There have also been challenges with bringing on board new or inexperienced colleges and limitations in the ability to mentor and develop our people, particularly those earlier in their careers. This is reportedly most acute for those without easy access to high-quality home-working facilities, for those in rented accommodation and for younger colleagues earlier in their careers. 

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.

Alex Chisholm

Civil Service Chief Operating Officer

Sir Mark Sedwill

Cabinet Secretary 

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