‘We’ll work from home forever’: Civil servants vow to fight returning to offices despite Boris Johnson declaring war on the ‘Whitehall blob’ – as some officials even relocate out to the Cotswolds and Cornwall to WFH

  • Boris Johnson is currently pushing for an end to working-from-home culture 
  • But some senior officials are planning to keep many staff remote permanently
  • Government sources said the plan is for a 60:40 split between home and office 

Boris Johnson was last night on a war footing with the Whitehall ‘blob’ over the reluctance of civil servants to return to their desks.

The Prime Minister is pushing for an end to the working-from-home culture – putting him on a collision course with senior officials, who are planning to keep a large number of their staff working from home permanently, The Mail on Sunday has learned.

Government sources have told this newspaper that the plan is for a 60:40 split between home and office working – with most based at home.

Boris Johnson (pictured) was last night on a war footing with the Whitehall ‘blob’ over the reluctance of civil servants to return to their desks

One insider said: ‘There are a number of civil servants who have bought nice houses in the country during lockdown and are betting that they will never, ever be forced into the office.’

But Mr Johnson’s Cabinet Office ‘enforcer’ Steve Barclay has written to Permanent Secretaries – the most senior officials in each department – telling them that the end of ‘Plan B’ Covid regulations now means ‘every desk should be filled’.

He also ordered them to provide figures on the number of staff who have returned to Whitehall by the end of next week, so he can report back to the Prime Minister.

Mr Barclay said: ‘It is important that Government departments lead the way in getting people back to the office, helping our economy get back up to full speed. 

The swift return of public servants to their workplaces will begin with immediate effect. While the Civil Service has met the challenges of the past two years admirably, we must all now learn to live with Covid.’

From early next month, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will make it mandatory for all staff to be in the office – but only three days a week.

Another major Whitehall department is making only two days a week compulsory, while a third will allow staff to work a week and a half in the office followed by two weeks from home.

Ghost town: An eerily deserted Westminster Bridge last week, as civil servants stayed at home

It is understood some departments are justifying their decision to allow large numbers to work from home because they do not have desk space to fit everyone at the same time.

The pressure to get civil servants back to the office comes as Mr Johnson hopes to ride out moves by his own MPs to remove him from office over the ‘Partygate’ row, and draw voters’ attention to the UK’s success in dealing with the Omicron surge in Covid cases.

MPs and business leaders last night hit out at Whitehall’s reluctance to get back to their desks while the rest of the country has to return to commuting.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, said: ‘The signal this sends to the rest of the country is ‘do as we say, not as we do’.

The Civil Service is in a mess because first they had ‘flexitime’, then they had lockdown, and now they all think they can work from home and ride their Peloton exercise bikes. I don’t mind flexitime to a degree, but this is flexi-holiday.

‘They say they do not have enough desks? Well put a bloody desk in! Get a damn grip. You need to be in the office. There’s lots to do, there’s lots of urgency, get on with it. There is no leadership in the Civil Service.

‘There used to be big beasts. Now they seem so intent on meeting [diversity] targets that they seem to promote people on the basis of what they look like, what gender they are.

‘There are some very good people in the Civil Service and they are frustrated because they never get picked, because they don’t tick all the boxes. It has become a cosy club for nonentities.’

Luke Johnson, the entrepreneur and former Pizza Express chairman, said Whitehall’s culture of working from home had been ‘a catastrophe’.

He said: ‘How do you motivate, encourage and train people if everyone is remote? Zoom is no substitute. It’s delusional to think it is as good.

‘If it’s other people’s money, as it always is in the public sector, do they care enough?’

Cabinet Ministers are set to lock horns with their senior officials over the reluctance to return to office working. It is understood that Home Secretary Priti Patel would prefer a 90:10 office-to-home ratio.

As well as Cabinet Office Minister Mr Barclay, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace are also understood to be ‘in campaigning mode’ to end the working from home (WFH) culture.

Mr Johnson’s Cabinet Office ‘enforcer’ Steve Barclay (pictured) has written to Permanent Secretaries – the most senior officials in each department – telling them that the end of ‘Plan B’ Covid regulations now means ‘every desk should be filled’

Some officials have bought houses in Cornwall and the Cotswolds ‘gambling’ they won’t ever have to return to the office, an insider said.

In October, The Mail on Sunday revealed that Cabinet Ministers had argued that civil servants working from home and unable to read vital security documents had left Britons at the mercy of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A Government source said: ‘It’s important civil servants get back to the office. There is business of government that needs to be done – and that needs to be done from the office.

‘The productivity rates of working-from-home civil servants are appalling.’

Alex Chisholm, the Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, wrote to trade unions on Friday to tell them that ‘Ministers are expecting the return to workplaces in the Civil Service to be operationalised over the next week’.

He also called for ‘collaboration’ to ‘ensure colleagues across the Civil Service are supported and remain safe as we move forward’. 

Jolly nice work if you can get it! As Boris urges the nation to get back to the office it’s revealed that 60 civil service jobs are advertised with salaries of up to £48,000… and all of them promise that the successful applicant will be able to WFH

By Georgia Edkins and Natasha Livingstone for the Mail on Sunday 

The Civil Service is still advertising ‘work from home’ jobs in flagrant disregard of the latest Covid rule update.

A total of 59 jobs across government departments have recently been listed with ‘home working’ as a possibility, despite Ministers insisting that workers should return to the office.

Among the roles advertised is a senior policy adviser in the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), with a salary of around £38,000 – almost 20 per cent higher than the average wage in Britain.

The successful candidate will be working beneath Permanent Secretary Sarah Healey, who was last year blasted for boasting about riding her Peloton exercise bike instead of being at her desk.

At the Education Department headquarters just 63 out of the total 2,000 staff were recorded showing up

Meanwhile, a listing for an operational research analyst at the Home Office, which describes the role’s responsibilities as being ‘at the heart of the Government’s agenda’, says the job can be carried out in ‘an environment with flexible working options’.

The Ministry of Defence is offering a £40,000 job, which promises ‘alternative working practices such as working from home’.

And the crisis-hit DVLA, which has been lambasted for its slow delivery of HGV licences during the pandemic, is advertising for seven new ‘work from home’ positions, with one offering a salary of around £48,000.

The adverts read: ‘DVLA supports flexible working… We are working towards introducing a hybrid model, under which working arrangements will be driven by the requirements of your role in agreement with your line manager.’

The agency has been the subject of strike action from staff resisting calls to go back to the office for fear there were not enough Covid safety measures.

Other roles that allow for home working include jobs with the Animal Plant and Health Agency, the Information Commissioner’s Office and HMRC.

Last year, the HMRC’s chief executive, Jim Harra, told a tax magazine that he was focused on making ‘the introduction of mixed home/office working a success’.

Our research follows an investigation by our sister paper the Daily Mail yesterday which found that at some Government departments as few as 3 per cent of staff were at their desks.

At the Education Department headquarters just 63 out of the total 2,000 staff were recorded showing up, and at the Business Department just 142 of a possible 1,800 were counted.

A number of Ministries are set to push for a hybrid way of working. Staff at one department were sent an email on Thursday asking them to discuss their ‘ability and willingness to return to the office’ with their line manager and complete ‘an individual risk assessment form’.

The department stated it had a goal of a 40 per cent office attendance rate but this was ‘only being encouraged and is not being mandated’.

Staff will be asked to come into the office at least one day a week ‘if possible’, but must book a desk online in advance.

Defiant union bosses last night claimed it did not make sense to require all Whitehall staff to return to offices after they had shown they could work perfectly well from their kitchens and bedrooms.

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said the world of work had changed for good.

Its general secretary, Dave Penman, accused Ministers of engaging in a ‘cultural’ war with the Civil Service, saying: ‘It’s not a health and safety thing – it just doesn’t make any sense. Ministers have made it this kind of cultural war.’

At the Business Department just 142 of a possible 1,800 were counted

Analysis by The Mail on Sunday shows that a number of Government departments are still pushing for a hybrid model of working, despite the rules around working from home being dropped.

One job at the DCMS is officially based in London or Manchester, but the advert reads: ‘It is anticipated that the successful candidate will have the flexibility to work remotely, with the anticipation that they attend a hub location two times per week’.

A business management lead at HMRC will only need to go to the office ‘where there is a business need’, an advert states. Meanwhile, the Home Office’s recruitment hub boasts that a benefit of working for the department is ‘an environment with flexible working options’.

A Government spokesman said: ‘This is taken out of context. The vast majority of jobs are office based.

‘Even before the pandemic, it was common for public and private sector organisations to offer flexible working arrangements for some jobs.’

The Government hopes that getting civil servants to return to the office will set an example to private companies – and so reinvigorate town centre businesses.

But the PCS union, which represents public sector workers, has pushed back against the plans, claiming they are ‘reckless’.

Taxpayer millions spent on IT in civil servants’ homes

By Max Aitchison and Georgia Edkins for the Mail on Sunday

Whitehall chiefs are continuing to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on chairs, laptops and IT services for home workers, with some contracts running until the end of 2025.

A Mail on Sunday analysis across central and local government found around 20 contracts related to home working worth £4.9 million which extend well beyond the end of this year, even though the official guidance on home working has already been scrapped.

HM Land Registry has a £2.74 million contract which runs until February 2023 for the supply of home office furniture for its 6,000 staff, which works out at around £450 per person. The ongoing contracts contributed to an estimated £33.3 million government spend on home working between March 2020 and September last year.

The top-spending agencies were the HMRC with £7.9 million, followed by NHS England with £5.9 million, according to Freedom of Information requests submitted by The Spectator magazine.

Other offices spent lavishly compared to the size of their workforce. The Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland spent a total of £2.8 million on home working for their 3,040 staff – the equivalent of £928 each.

Last night, a spokesman for HM Land Registry said: ‘This contract has been awarded to ensure we can provide furniture needs for office working, but also home working and hybrid working, to meet the needs of today and the future and is comparable in value to similar furniture contracts in previous years.’

Further figures from the TaxPayers’ Alliance show that more than £800 million has been spent on civil service offices in London since the pandemic began.

Danielle Boxall, media campaign manager at the pressure group, said: ‘Taxpayers won’t take kindly to footing the bill for empty offices.

‘Paying for the prime location of Whitehall pen-pushers costs a small fortune, with operating costs alone running into the hundreds of millions of pounds.’

Officials relocate to the country hoping never to commute again

By Anna Mikhailova for the Mail on Sunday

Civil servants have bought houses in Cornwall and the Cotswolds ‘gambling’ that they will never have to return to the office.

Government sources last night said a number of Whitehall officials have relocated as they expect to be able to work from home (WFH) indefinitely.

One source said they know a number of pivotal staff who are ‘living in places in Cornwall and the North of England while still claiming London wages’.

The insider said the civil servants are ‘betting that they will never, ever be forced in’ and have ‘taken a gamble’ by buying homes far from Whitehall during the pandemic.

Picturesque: Cotswolds appeals to civil servants working from home (file photo used)

But the source added that not having full teams in the office at the same time ‘hammers the ability to function as a group’ and affects the productivity of Government departments.

Luke Johnson, the entrepreneur and former Pizza Express chairman, said senior officials have ‘other motivations’ for keeping the culture of working from home in Whitehall.

‘The medium and senior management in the public sector probably live in nice houses with gardens,’ he said. ‘They are saving on commuting fares. As far as they’re concerned if they have to go back, it’s like a pay cut.’

Another Government source said civil servants relocating to the Cotswolds is ‘lovely for them, not as good for their junior staff who get paid hardly anything’.

Boris Johnson last week urged Government departments to set an example for the private sector and return to ‘normal’ office patterns after Covid WFH guidance was lifted.

The Prime Minister said: ‘Across Whitehall, we need to show a lead and make sure that we get back to work, everybody gets back to work.’

Plan B ‘work from home’ guidance was lifted last week after official data showed Covid infections falling in most parts of the UK and in most age groups.

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