Staff at the Department for Education have been told by secretary of state Nadhim Zahawi they must return to pre-pandemic working routines ‘immediately’ after a league table of office attendance showed it had the lowest rates on Whitehall.
Figures widely reported after being included in a letter from Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg that urged higher civil servant attendance rates, showed that on any given day in the first week of April only a quarter of DfE staff were working from their offices.
This was the cue for Zahawi to tell MPs on parliament’s Education Select Committee on Wednesday that he had told civil servants to attend their offices.
Covid cases have fallen in the UK and globally. In the UK there were 646 new deaths within 28 days of a positive test for coronavirus reported on 21 April 2022, and 1,636 people in the last seven days. This shows a decrease of 348 compared with the previous seven days, but the virus may be still prevalent enough to cause a high degree of hesitancy over commuting to work and mingling with colleagues.
The high cost of travelling into town centres and reduced public transport are among other factors limiting the return to offices.
Business leaders have regularly urged the government to provide free Covid testing kits to help staff remain safe, prevent infections and build confidence in travelling to work.
When asked by education committee chair Robert Halfon why DfE attendance was so far behind those of other departments Zahawi was unable to provide an explanation despite paying tribute to staff’s work. The average office attendance on Whitehall is 44%.
“Since I was appointed secretary of state back in September the team has delivered everything from skills legislation to the schools white paper to the SEND green paper,” Zahawi said, indicating that productivity had not declined as a result of most people working from home.
Halfon asked Zahawi whether Covid was rife in the department and that was the reason civil servants were staying away.
“No,” Zahawi replied. “My instruction from my prime minister, from cabinet yesterday is that we’ve got to go back to pre-Covid working and office use, and that’s what we will do. And you will see us improve.
“We are going back to pre-Covid working, where I expect offices to return to normality pre the pandemic. That is my instruction to my teams. That is what you will see happen.”
Earlier this week a report by US consultancy Future Forum found that “inflexible” return-to-office policies were having a negative effect on employee experience and driving attrition. It also found evidence of double standards at many companies where senior leaders urged people to come into work while staying at home themselves.