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Many staff will continue to work from home until the Autumn of 2021, leaving offices desolate across the UK. Ministerial departments in Whitehall are said to be “ghost towns” with one seeing just three percent of staff working in its head office this week. Some have adopted a six phase approach to bringing workers back over the next year.
The fifth phase of the plan, seen by this newspaper, aims to have 75 percent of the department’s Whitehall staff back in the office within 12 to 18 months of the first national lockdown in March.
This means that most workers may not return until next September or October.
But their return is dependent on there being “strong evidence” of a successful Covid-19 vaccine being developed.
Strict limits on the number of people have also been set in some government buildings while draconian Covid rules also mean staff have to place a cone outside toilets so other people don’t enter the room.
The bleak outlook in Whitehall, home to around 90,000 of the government’s 430,000-strong civil service workforce, highlights the devastating impact of the pandemic on town and city centres up and down the country.
The exodus of staff has meant that many shops, pubs and restaurants in surrounding have been forced to shut temporarily with future re-openings now in peril as Covid restrictions tighten in the capital.
Last month Alex Chisholm, the chief operating officer of the civil service, suggested that the rise of home working would give ministers an opportunity to shrink the Government’s office footprint by selling off some buildings in Whitehall.
And civil servants are now wondering whether they will return to Whitehall, if at all, within the next 12 months.
One Whitehall worker told the Daily Express: “I have been into head office once since all this started but the expectation is that working from home will continue well into 2021.
“They are limiting the number of staff to 50 for the whole building and I barely saw anyone when I was there. There were about 30 people whereas there’s usually 1,000. The place was deserted, it’s like a ghost town.”
A source from another department, who confirmed there is a phased approach to bringing staff back into the office, said: “There is definitely no urgency to bringing us back in, even before the changes that have been brought in over the last few weeks.
“I honestly don’t think Whitehall will be the same again. Of course it’s necessary to be able to come into the office and see people face to face but on the other hand everyone is very capable working from home. Civil servants won’t return full-time in the numbers there were before. It’s not what the government wants but I can’t see any other way.”
Another civil servant, who works in the government’s new FCDO super-department, said it was “depressing” to see the offices so empty.
“They have really got to town on making the offices Covid-secure. You have to pass an assessment to even be allowed in to work and when you are there it’s quite depressing with very few people around. When you go into the toilets you have to put a cone outside so that no-one comes into the room.”
In August Boris Johnson urged workers across the UK, including civil servants, to return to their workplaces to help boost the economic recovery.
But the recent surge in coronavirus infections has seen a change in guidance with people now advised to work from home if they can.
A Downing Street spokesman said yesterday: “As we set out at the time when we changed the guidance to work from home if you can permanent secretaries in departments are working with secretary’s of state and ministers to decide how many civil servants are required to be present in the office. Those who are, and do, work from home continue to do so.”
A Government spokesperson said: “In line with the latest guidance, where staff can work from home they are doing so.
“However civil service staff working in essential services should continue to go into work, where necessary, in a Covid-secure workplace.
“It is for departments, in consultation with staff, to decide and manage who should continue to attend the workplace, in order to maintain the full delivery of public services.”
The FDA civil servants’ union has welcomed the change in working practices.
The Prime Minister has previously promised to move jobs out of London towards new Government sites in northern cities such as York, with some of those posts partly based at home.
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