Minister insists there is a ‘limit’ to home working as return to offices pushed

A senior minister 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.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, conducting a round of 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 return to their workplaces amid fears town and city centres are becoming ghost areas as commuters stay away.

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

The Government is planning a newspaper and television blitz to get people back into the office, with an unnamed source suggesting to the Telegraph that those opting to keep working from home could make themselves more “vulnerable” to redundancy in any post-Covid business shake-ups.

Labour shadow business minister Lucy Powell hit back at the remarks, calling them “unconscionable” and demanded Downing Street “condemn this briefing”.

She said: “It beggars belief that the Government are threatening people like this during a pandemic.”

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.

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 said a “buzz” is being felt again in his own Department for Transport building in central London as officials return, with management “encouraging people back now”.

He 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 have returned to the office and added he cares more that they are doing their jobs effectively.

Ministers could face an uphill battle in motivating staff back into town and city centre workplaces after newly-published research suggested employees would like to continue home working after the pandemic.

Nine out of 10 people in the UK who have worked from home during lockdown want to continue doing so, according to the report, called Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown.

But Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, warned of the “costs of office closures”.

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

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

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

Dame Carolyn told Times Radio on Thursday that a “hybrid” approach is needed as she confirmed staff in her own organisation are likely to be able to work from home until the end of the year.

Former Tory chairman Mr Shapps admitted there are “challenges” for the public transport network when it came to dealing with greater passenger numbers.

But he stressed trains and buses are much less full than before the pandemic, making social distancing while wearing a face covering possible even if more people opt to revive their commute to work.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: “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… that there is capacity now for more people on public transport.”