Forcing people back to office shows 'fundamental misunderstanding' of pandemic in Yorkshire, union figure says

Any attempts to force people back into the office shows a “fundamental misunderstanding” of how the pandemic has been experienced in Yorkshire, a union has said, with far fewer people in the region having worked from home compared to the capital.

File photo dated 03/03/20 of a woman using a laptop on a dining room table set up as a remote office to work from home. (PA/Joe Giddens)

The Government said on Monday that it had no plans to dock the pay of civil servants who do not want to return to their Whitehall desks, following comments from an anonymous Cabinet minister suggesting officials who want to keep working from home should have a pay cut.

One Yorkshire union official pointed out that a return to “normal” in the area could be very different to that in other parts of the country, with a large number of employees having not been able to work from home in the first place.

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Gareth Forest of TUC Yorkshire said: “In Yorkshire we still face a significant workplace health and safety threat from COVID, and yet less than 40% of workers in our region have been able to work from home during the pandemic, compared with 60% in London. Our region’s experience of the pandemic has been very different from that of senior Conservative MPs urging a return to a so called ‘normal.’

“The 800,000 key workers across Yorkshire have been on the frontlines of this pandemic, facing the dangers we all know are there. Those of us working from home have been supporting key workers by staying put.

“For senior Conservatives to suggest that workers should ‘get off their backsides’ or that their pay should be cut for working from home, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how hard people have worked from home during this crisis.

“Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield are home to thousands of civil servants who have done their part by remote working. Families have faced a one in a generation pandemic with little childcare or sick pay support from government. They deserve better than this.”

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng acknowledged on Monday morning that flexible working is “here to stay” and told the BBC’s Today Programme: “I don’t think it makes sense to have a Government diktat telling people exactly how many hours they’re going to spend in the office and exactly how many hours they’re going to spend at home.”

Over the weekend, it was also reported that the Department of Health has scrapped plans to get staff back into the office part time by September.

The Guardian reported the DHSC had put its staff on notice that from September the “minimum expectation” was they would need to be in the office for a minimum of four and a maximum of eight days every month – unless there was a business or wellbeing reason.

However, in an announcement seen by the newspaper, DHSC’s director of workplace and director of HR told staff on Thursday that “it’s clear that we cannot proceed with this phase on the planned timescale”.

A government spokesperson said: “Since the pandemic began, civil servants have been delivering the government’s priorities from home and the workplace.

“This includes the vaccine rollout, one of the world’s most comprehensive economic responses and continuing to run vital public services.

“Like other employers, the Civil Service continues to follow the latest government guidance and is gradually increasing the numbers of staff in the workplace, while also retaining the flexibility of home-based working."