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The Prime Minister has decided to instruct officials to return to their offices as part of the Government’s drive to fire up the economy following the coronavirus lockdown. A letter signed by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and Civil Service chief operating office Alex Chisholm and sent to all civil servants insisted Government offices were now “Covid secure” allowing staff to go to their normal workplaces “in greater numbers.”
The move follows concerns that millions of employees still working from home could destroy swathes of city centre businesses dependent on commuter trade, putting jobs at risk.
Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are understood to be hoping that many private sector firms will follow the Government’s lead in encouraging staff back to offices.
Many schools in England reopened this week with the rest scheduled to follow next, freeing up parents to return to their usual workplaces.
Railways are expected to step up services next week with commuter numbers expected to increase significantly.
Civil service chiefs aim for around 80% of staff to spend at least part of every week in their usual office by the end of this month.
Rota systems will be put in place to ensure offices to do not break Government social-distancing guidelines.
Mr Johnson has demanded weekly attendance figures to make sure the return to Whitehall workplaces is going ahead at speed.
The letter to civil servants said: “As you will be aware, almost all Government offices have now been assessed as COVID-secure, with civil servants able to return to workplaces in greater numbers, in line with UK Government and Devolved Administration guidelines.”
Mr Johnson and his ministers discussed the issue at their Cabinet meeting in Downing Street earlier this week.
The letter said the meeting had “confirmed their collective view that increasing both the number of people in the office and the amount of time those people spend in the office will be hugely beneficial for our workforce.”
It added: “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.”
Civil servant had worked “exceptionally hard” in “highly challenging circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic, the letter said. They had adapted and show innovation “under pressure to deliver for the UK when it matters most.”
The Civil Service chiefs wrote: “We all recognise that this experience has been challenging for individuals and for Departments.
“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.”
Ministers had concluded there were “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.
Sir Mark and Mr Chisholm insisted safety was their “paramount concern” during the return to work.
“The Prime Minister has made clear his aim is to get as many people back to workplaces as possible, without increasing the number of staff above COVID-secure levels,” the letter said.
“Departments which are still below their departmental constraints should now move quickly to seek to bring more staff back into the office in a COVID-secure way, and take advantage of the return to schools this month and increased public transport availability.”
The letter, sent on Thursday, concluded: “The last few months have been extremely challenging, and we continue to face an unprecedented period of uncertainty.
“Much has been asked of departments individually, and the Civil Service as a whole, and we thank you as permanent secretaries for your continued support.”
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