Pressure is building on ministers to back down on plans to use a messaging blitz next week to encourage employees back to work.
The Government is planning a newspaper and television assault 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 “vulnerable” to redundancy in any post-Covid business shake-ups.
The announcement by coffee and sandwich chain Pret a Manger that it plans to axe 2,800 roles from its shops due to trade slumping by about 60% year-on-year has further fuelled Downing Street fears that town and city centres are becoming ghost areas as commuters stay away.
But devolution leaders, opposition MPs, trade unions and Britain’s equality watchdog have hit out at the intention to target those still working from home following the coronavirus lockdown, and condemned the tone of the off-the-record briefing to the press.
Labour shadow business minister Lucy Powell called the language “unconscionable” and demanded Downing Street “condemn this briefing”.
Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would not “intimidate people back to work”.
Speaking at the daily coronavirus briefing, the SNP leader said: “I will not countenance in Scotland any kind of narrative around this that is seeking to almost intimidate people back to work before, as a country, we have taken a decision that that is safe.”
A spokesman for the Labour-led Welsh Government said employees in the country would continue to be advised to work from home “where possible”.
Ministers, meanwhile, were labelled “dinosaurs” by the chief of the FDA union for wanting a full-blown return to office-based working.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the civil servants’ union, said ministers needed to accept the “world of work has changed”, while Trade Union Congress boss Frances O’Grady argued many staff now wanted “a better balance of office and home-based working”.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said there should be “no question of people’s jobs being vulnerable if they do not return to the office”.
Interim commission chair Caroline Waters said: “Having seen how it is possible to work flexibly and retain productivity, we cannot backtrack now.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was on the airwaves on Friday laying the groundwork for the Government’s messaging campaign next week by pushing the assertion that it was now safe to return to workplaces.
Speaking on Sky News, he said: “What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back to work and your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure that it is coronavirus-safe to work and you will see some changes if you haven’t been in for a bit as a result.”
The former Tory chairman said there was a “limit…to remote working” and that management in his own Department for Transport had been “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.