Ghost town fears see Shapps push for end of ‘limited’ home working

Grant Shapps has said there is a “limit” to working from home as the Government looks to encourage staff back into offices after another commuter-focused business announced job cuts.

The Transport Secretary, conducting a round of broadcast interviews from home, was reinforcing the Government’s message in the run-up to a major media campaign next week in which employees will be encouraged to stop working from home amid fears that town and city centres are becoming ghost areas as commuters stay away.

It comes as coffee and sandwich chain Pret a Manger announced it was axing 2,800 roles from its shops, with 30 sites due to be closed, after reporting that trade was down around 60% year-on-year because of the coronavirus-enforced lockdown.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Shapps said: “I think there’s a limit, just in human terms, to remote working.

“And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress.”

Mr Shapps struck a different tone to his Cabinet colleague, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who on Thursday said he had “absolutely no idea” how many Department of Health civil servants had returned to the office, adding that he cared more that they were doing their jobs effectively.

The Prime Minister has been calling for employees to start returning to their place of work for more than a month and Chancellor Rishi Sunak has previously ruled out extending the furlough scheme beyond October as the Government looks to entice people out of their lockdown habits and reboot the economy.

Former Tory chairman Mr Shapps admitted there were “challenges” for the public transport network when it came to dealing with greater passenger numbers but stressed that trains and buses were much less full than before the pandemic, making social distancing while wearing a face covering possible.

Passengers wearing face masks at Waterloo station
Passengers wearing face masks at Waterloo station

“It’s obviously not without its challenges, but we’re ramping it up so that the transport system will be back and, in particular, putting on additional coaches bespoke for the school children returning in many cases,” he told Sky.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast later, Mr Shapps added: “At the moment the trains are – all the public transport is – very much underused, probably at about a third of its usual levels.

“We think now, with the guidance that is in place – and it was updated, if you recall, just before the summer – that there is capacity now for more people on public transport.”

The Government is reportedly due to reveal a newspaper and television blitz to get people back into the office.

The Telegraph quoted an unnamed Government source who suggested those opting to keep working from home could make themselves more “vulnerable” to redundancy in any post-Covid business shake-ups.

Labour’s shadow business minister Lucy Powell said: “It beggars belief that the Government are threatening people like this during a pandemic.

“Forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable.

“Number 10 should condemn this briefing and categorically rule out any such campaign.”

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, used an article in the Daily Mail on Thursday to warn of the “costs of office closures”.

“Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade,” she said.

“This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.”

A poll published in the Telegraph on Thursday suggested a third of British workers expect to work from home after the pandemic.

A University College London study found that almost a third of 30 to 59-year-olds and 29% of 18 to 29-year-olds said they plan to work from home more after the crisis ends.