Matt Hancock says face-to-face contact is vital for working

Matt Hancock back tracks on return to work saying face-to-face contact is vital in call for Britons to head back to office – as rail firms offer three-day season tickets to lure staff back to their desks

  • Health secretary stated that office working helps employees  build a ‘rapport’
  • But the comment stands in stark contrast to his claim that working from home should be the ‘new normal’ and become a change that is ‘never going away’
  • Department for Health guidance says Britons can return to their offices
  • Government has been calling on employers to return staff to their desks 

Matt Hancock has back tracked on previous advice to urge Britons to get back to their desks, saying face-to-face contact is vital for building ‘rapport’ between colleagues and a ‘natural part of getting things done’.

‘Social relations are part and parcel of an effective working relationship that you can only really build up face-to-face,’ he professed to The Times.

‘It’s about building rapport because working effectively in many jobs you need to build a rapport. It’s harder to build that rapport by Zoom.’

His revelation stands in stark contrast to his claim last month, where the health secretary said working from home should become the ‘new normal’.

The Department for Health says staff can return to their offices provided their employer has ‘made arrangements for you to work safely’.

Boris Johnson has been leading calls for employers to bring staff back to the office to ‘save the economy’ and ‘revitalise’ ghost town Briton, but has failed to bring back his own civil servants.

It comes as train companies start offering three-day season tickets in a frantic bid to get commuters back onto public transport.

The embattled health secretary said that going back to the office is vital for building ‘rapport’ and a ‘natural part of getting things done’. But last month he said working from home should become the ‘new normal’

A worker wearing a face covering, puts away chairs as they prepare to close a Pret-a-Manger store in London on August 12 in London

Continuing to champion the effectiveness of the office environment, Mr Hancock told The Times: ‘I was in Downing Street yesterday because I had three meetings with the prime minister and it’s far easier to have those meetings face-to-face because there’s a better calibre, or better quality, of discussion.’

But, revealing his see-saw-like attitude to the crisis, he told members of women’s club AllBright in a web chat on 10 July: ‘I definitely think (working from home) should be the norm where possible.

‘We need to persuade people that allowing flexible working should continue. This is a change that is never going to go away.’

And on Thursday the Health Secretary opened a rift with officials by claiming he ‘doesn’t care’ if his staff remain working from home.

‘What I care about is how effectively people work and obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job,’ he told Times Radio.

‘And also employers need to make sure the offices are Covid-secure, as we have obviously in the Department for Health, as you would fully expect us to.’

The stark U-turn comes as:

  • Matt Hancock warns the UK could go back into a nationwide lockdown or endure ‘extensive’ social restrictions this winter as SAGE plans for a worst case scenario; 
  • Prime minister prepares for a collision with defiant unions as he launches a back-to-work drive to get civil servants to their offices;
  • Streets remain quiet as 24 of the UK’s biggest firms confirm they have no plans to bring staff back to the offices;
  • Train companies consider offering three-day season ticket in attempt to lure employees back onto their services; 
  • Trafford, Bolton and Burnley and six other boroughs are released from tough coronavirus restrictions
  • Britain’s daily cases jump 24 per cent in a week and the death rate continues to climb.

Boris Johnson has been leading calls for Britons to get behind their desks, but many civil servants are still steering clear of their offices in Whitehall. Only a fifth of the 430,000-strong bureaucracy are expected to return soon

Tubes and train lines remain largely empty at peak rush hour times, forcing rail firms to consider offering three-day a week season tickets to get commuters back on the tracks. Pictured is a central London train station on August 26

Footfall in town and city centre streets has stagnated in recent weeks, while out-of town retail parks and urban shopping centres are slowly moving back towards their original footfall, the Office for National Statistics said

British workers are the most reluctant to return to the office because of fears of a second wave of coronavirus, a study found

Four in ten workers admit they find working from home ‘a challenge’ as HR staff say those who come in are resentful of colleagues

Four in ten Britons who have been working from home during the pandemic have found it a challenge, according to a new survey.

An Ipsos MORI poll found that of those people, their most common complaint was a lack of adequate workspace closely followed by missing their colleagues.

Just 27 per cent of those surveyed said they did not find working from home a challenge, with 32 per cent saying it is very challenging.

 HR staff have also revealed that employees heading into the office feel aggrieved at the money and time spent commuting.

This has led to some companies offering in-house staff added perks including extra paid leave and bonuses.

Some disgruntled workers have even launched grievance procedures against their employer. 

Boris Johnson has been leading rallying cries to get employees back to offices, but the government was forced to admit only at the start of this month that the number of civil servants returning will be ‘low’.

A risk assessment for Whitehall departments revealed that while some people ‘need’ to come back to the office, ‘the number of people in the workplace will initially remain low compared to our normal capacity numbers’.

The PM is now reportedly on a collision course with unions as he prepares a fresh push to get civil servants to ‘set an example’ by returning to their desks. 

Downing Street sources claimed he was determined to get ‘every’ official back behind their desks to demonstrate a safe return to work is possible.

‘You will see a more firm direction to Whitehall to get back to the office next week,’ a source said. ‘The Prime Minister is very keen on getting more people back to the workplace.

‘The main focus has to be on getting every civil servant back at their desk. It sets an example to the rest of the country and demonstrates that it can be done safely.’

Departments were ordered to draw up plans for phased returns in July but ministers have been forced to admit that progress has been ‘slow’. 

Rail firms have also jumped on the back-to-work bandwagon, offering cheaper season tickets as they try to lure back commuters.

The new three-days-a-week type is expected to be made available as soon as next month if, as expected, the government extends emergency funding of franchises.

It is thought the financial burden of commuting is putting many off from returning to work, encouraging firms to offer cheaper tickets. 

The chief executive of independent travel watchdog Transport Focus told The Times: ‘For many passengers, there just isn’t a ticket available that fits the way we live and travel now.

‘To get Britain moving again, the Government needs to accelerate the rate of fares reform so that train companies can offer a flexible season ticket… and better value for money fares across the board.’

This week it was revealed that 50 of the UK’s biggest employers had ‘no plans’ to return all their staff to the office full-time in the near future.

Some 24 of the firms said they had no plans in place to return anyone to their desks. While 20 said they had opened their offices for staff unable to work from home.

London’s streets and business districts remain largely deserted during rush-hour and the working week, as employees continue to work from home. 

The ‘ghost town’ capital is doing untold damage to local businesses, which rely on commuters and office workers on lunch breaks for income.

More than 100,000 jobs have been axed in the bloodbath, as companies take action to stave off the falling revenue stream.

M&S axed 7,000 jobs last week alone from its 60,000-strong workforce. It said it expects a ‘significant’ number of roles will be cut through voluntary departures and early retirement.

Retail giant Debenhams said it would axe 2,500 jobs across its stores and warehouses, and another 14,000 were on the brink amid talks on liquidating the giant. 

A pedestrian wears walks past shuttered shop fronts on an empty shopping street in London on August 12

Seaside towns lead the way in Britain’s stalled recovery 

Seaside towns are leading the return to normality following Britain’s coronavirus lockdown – with Blackpool, Bournemouth and Southend among the areas becoming busy with shoppers, workers and tourists once again.

Data revealed the three coastal resorts alongside Birkenhead, Basildon, Chatham and Doncaster had all seen higher levels of footfall over the past week than before restrictions were brought in in March.

Beachgoers at Bournemouth beach, Aug 10

But London lagged behind – with footfall still only a quarter of what it was before lockdown.

It also remains under half in Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff, Oxford and Manchester.

The Centre for Cities think-tank revealed the discrepancy after publishing an interactive map, which also found only 17 per cent of workers in British cities had returned to their desks in early August. 

This week the head of the employers’ federation, the CBI, warned of ‘ghost towns’ emerging in once bustling urban centres if the struggle to bring workers back continues.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn argued that thousands of local businesses – from sandwich bars to dry cleaners – are at risk from the stay-at-home mentality.

She also said that without a much-needed return younger staff are never going to improve, learn and progress. There is also a danger of creating a schism, she said, between the stay-at-homes and the no-choicers.

‘The UK’s officers are vital drivers of our economy,’ she said.

‘The costs of office closures are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.’

She added that getting schools open, and then to stay open, was vital for getting parents back to work.

And said that the government needed to do more to encourage people back on to public transport through acts such as enforcing safety measures and supporting a flexible ticket scheme. 

Britain’s retailers have cut jobs at the fastest rate since the financial crisis in 2009 due to the crisis, creating a jobs bloodbath on the high street.

A survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found the employment balance, which measures the number of retailers laying off and hiring staff over the past year, had dropped to minus 45 per cent in August from minus 20 per cent in May.

It comes as London’s footfall languished at just a quarter of pre-lockdown levels in early August, the lowest in the UK.

And it remained below half in Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff, Oxford and Manchester, stunting the recovery.

The Centre for Cities think-tank published the figures, and revealed that only 17 per cent of workers in British cities returned to their desks in early August.

It is thought seaside towns may have seen an uptick as Britons headed to the coast for a summer staycation, now that Spain, France and other top holiday hotspots are off the list.

The gradual return to the office is thought to have helped to slightly boost the figures at inland locations. 

It comes amid mounting warnings of mass unemployment when the government’s furlough scheme officially comes to an end in October. 

As much as 13 per cent of staff are still on paid furlough, with almost one-in-four companies topping up their wages. 

DAME CAROLYN FAIRBAIRN: Ghost town Britain HAS to get back to work and Boris Johnson must lead the way

CBI director-general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn

Decisions taken over the next few weeks will shape our economy for a decade.

Getting schools back is an essential component. But as important will be building the right environment to get people back into offices and workplaces.

The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy. They support thousands of local firms, from drycleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.

The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.

Remote working has been a resounding success for many firms and employees, and none of these benefits should be lost. Many people have never worked harder, keeping businesses afloat from their desks and kitchen tables.

Flexible working is here to stay and needs to remain an option for many. But there are serious downsides too.

For young people, learning face-to-face in the workplace is an unbeatable way to build skills and confidence. We must not deprive the next generation of this opportunity.

Not everyone has the space to work effectively at home – an ironing board in the bedroom does not make a great workspace. And the mental health challenges triggered by isolation are all too real for many.

A lone man looks across the River Thames from the South Bank in Central London on Monday

There is also the question of fairness. Many employees, from barbers to brewers, have no option to work from home.

We don’t want to see a new divide in our society – between those who can and can’t work from the safety and comfort of their homes.

For all these reasons we need more people to feel it is safe and possible to go back into their places of work.

This is why we are today calling on the Prime Minister and his Government to do more to build confidence around getting people back into offices and workplaces.

Getting schools open safely is a vital first step to enable parents to go back to work, but they must stay open wherever possible.

This means effective test and trace, and a focus on resilience. We need government, nationally and locally, to do much more to build confidence in public transport.

They need to shout louder about safety measures in place, enforce the wearing of face masks on tubes, buses and trains, and support the introduction of flexible season tickets so people can return gradually without financial penalty.

A lone woman crosses Waterloo Bridge with the London Eye in the background on Monday

And we urgently need mass widespread testing – including in the workplace – to help people feel confident and safe.

We welcome the Health Secretary’s recent commitment to a mass testing strategy for 2021.

More flexible working is indisputably a good thing for our economy and quality of life, but we must have a balance.

It’s time for the UK to bring its workplaces back to life, or we will look back with regret at the jobs lost, training missed, and communities harmed.

We ask the Government to work with business to build confidence in returning to offices, starting now. 

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