Minister hints at changes after revealing 75% of his staff still home working

A minister has said he wants to “lead by example” in encouraging civil servants back to the workplace after he revealed that only a quarter of his team work in the office at any one time.

Nadhim Zahawi said that, while all of his staff were back to working in Whitehall, they operate on a rota system so that just one in four are at their desks each day, with the rest carrying out their jobs from home.

It comes after a spokesman for Boris Johnson said the Prime Minister wanted to see a “gradual return of people to the workplaces” in the Civil Service, outlining the “significant benefits” of office-based working.

The call to return appeared to be heeded by thousands more London commuters, with the capital’s Tube network on Monday recording its busiest rush hour morning since March 2020, according to Transport for London data.

Between 7am and 8am on Monday, there were some 277,000 “taps” in on the Tube, an increase of 24% on last Tuesday, with a further 332,000 entries between 8am and 9am – up 22% on last week.

Tube usage had been expected to reach 50% of the pre-pandemic level by the end of Monday, while on buses it could be more than two-thirds.

Asked about how many of his own team had returned to office working, vaccines minister Mr Zahawi told LBC radio: “People are coming back and my staff now, as of this month for example, have got something like 25% permanently back in the office on a rota system – so all of them are back effectively.”

But he conceded that his Department of Health and Social Care office space could “certainly” accommodate more in-person working.

Put to him that workers were being encouraged to return to offices while at the same time the majority of his office was empty, the minister said: “We continue to make sure we get people back as quickly as possible, as safely as possible, it is the right thing to do.

“Look, we have to lead by example and I will take your message and personally make sure that we continue on with the staff, because it is important that people come back, and come back safely.”

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman on Monday said it was up to individual employers how staff returned, but emphasised that there were benefits to workers being based in the same location.

Speaking on Tuesday, he said: “What we want to see is the Civil Service and, indeed, the broader workforce returning in a gradual way.

“I think we’ve seen the increase in numbers produced by TfL (Transport for London) and other transport networks which are showing significant increases as people do make that gradual return.

“We think that is the right approach and certainly one which the Civil Service is abiding by.

“I’ll repeat that throughout, even at the height of the pandemic, it was civil servants, many of whom were continuing to work from the office because they were on the front line to the response to this pandemic.”