Government ‘got into a tizzy’ about civil servants home working

The government has “wasted” three weeks of Whitehall bosses’ time by twice changing its advice on civil servants working from home, a union says.

FDA leader Dave Penman said ministers had got themselves into a “tizzy” and had suggested staff were “lazy”.

In March, civil servants were told to work from home if possible, but earlier this month ministers said 80% should come in once a week or more by October.

But, with Covid cases up, they reverted to the previous advice this week.

The government has promised to maintain “productivity” and “cohesiveness” within the Civil Service as the pandemic continues.

Over the summer, with city-centre businesses such as shops and cafés suffering because of a lack of commuters, the government encouraged companies to bring more people back into the office where it was made safe.

Downing Street argued that civil servants should set an example to the private sector and return to their usual workplace in greater numbers.

And, at the start of this month, Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer of the Civil Service, wrote to permanent secretaries, who run government departments, telling them the should “now move quickly to seek to bring more staff back into the office in a Covid-secure way”.

‘Amazing work’

Mr Penman, whose FDA union represents senior civil servants, accused the government of putting “political pressure” on itself by briefing the media that civil servants were “reluctant” to return to offices – and then having to be seen to rectify this.

At the start of the coronavirus crisis, permanent secretaries had “transformed their staff from being 95% office-based to 95% home-based in three weeks, while delivering the furlough scheme for the country”, he said.

“They did amazing work turning it around and then they got told to reverse much of it in the same timeframe. Well, that’s going to hit productivity, the important things that government needs to be doing.

“And now we’re back to where we were in the first place. At the same time you have civil servants being called lazy. It’s all been such a waste of time and goodwill.”

Huffpost reported this week that Home Office staff in central London had been told to bring in packed lunches, because the time it took to get through Covid-19 checks and security.

“Ministers got themselves into a tizzy and ended up with this target of 80%,” said Mr Penman. “Then they committed to a timeframe. They didn’t think it through.”

The Cabinet Office, the Whitehall department which supports the prime minister, declined to comment on Mr Penman’s remarks.

But official guidance states that civil servants in “essential” services should “continue to go into work where necessary in a Covid-secure workplace”.

It adds that permanent secretaries “know their departments best” and will work with cabinet ministers to decide which colleagues should “continue to attend the workplace to support ministers and maintain full delivery of public services”.

The situation will be kept under review to ensure “safe working” and that “Civil Service productivity and cohesiveness do not falter at this crucial time”, it adds.

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