Grant Shapps faced questions this morning after urging the public to return to their workplaces to boost the economy – from the comfort of his home.
The Transport Secretary used a media round to say he believed there was a limit ‘in human terms’ to remote working, arguing people will want to return to workplaces to see their colleagues.
He insisted that public transport services will be increased if trains and buses get too busy when more workers resume their commutes.
But he faced criticism for telling people ‘it is now safe to return to work’ as he conducted the interviews from his home in Welwyn Garden City, in his Hertfordshire constituency north of London.
Meanwhile his choice of backdrop reading material set tongues wagging. Among his set design were books on political psychology and how to be nice to people, and what appeared to be an empty ministerial red box.
Appearing on LBC Breakfast, host Nick Ferrari said: ‘I’m sitting in my studio in central London. Unless I am mistaken you are in your study in Hertfordshire.
‘So I am back to work, Secretary of State you are not. Why? Discuss…’
Mr Shapps replied: ‘That is true. For this morning’s round (of interviews) this works very well.
‘Last week when I spoke to you – same time, same place, as it were – my place was different. I was in Cardiff.’
He added: ‘I was actually going in on an ad-hoc basis throughout, there were just things that I had to do. Of course I did half a dozen of those Downing Street press conferences during the height of this and that necessitated going into the office.’
It came as Boris Johnson prepared to launch a major drive to persuade more Britons to return to their workplaces – as remote workers were warned they could be more at risk of being sacked.
The Government is increasingly concerned that continued working from home will deal a hammer blow to struggling town and city centres.
The Prime Minister is expected to step up his efforts next week to get more people back to their normal routines by reassuring the public that ‘the workplace is a safe place’.
The prospect of a new campaign to encourage commuters to return to their offices will be welcomed by Tory MPs who today warned that businesses in urban centres are facing ‘devastating consequences’ if things do not go back to normal.
But Labour has accused ministers of ‘threatening’ workers and of ‘forcing’ them to make an ‘unconscionable’ choice between their health and their job after a Government source said people who continue working from home could be the first to go if firms restructure.
Mr Shapps suggested many people will want to go back to their places of work because there is a limit ‘in human terms’ to remote working.
Speaking on Sky News, the Transport Secretary said: ‘What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back to work and your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure that it is coronavirus-safe to work and you will see some changes if you haven’t been in for a bit as a result.’
He added: ‘We’re absolutely clear that employers and employees need to work together to resolve this and there are of course a whole host of sort of employee protections in place if employees have concerns about the work place for example, then the Health and Safety Executive, the local authority will be the right places to go.
‘The vast majority of employers just want to get their businesses back up and running, they want to do the right thing, and many will have found that actually home working can work for some of their employees.
‘But as I say, I think there’s a limit, just in human terms, to remote working. And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress.
‘So I think common sense will prevail between employers and employees. It’s certainly what we’ve seen so far and I very much think that will carry on next week as people do start to return more often to the office.’
Mr Shapps said more services will be put on if areas of the transport system become too busy.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘So at the moment the trains are – all the public transport is very much underused – probably at about a third of its usual levels.
‘We think now, with the guidance that is in place, and it was updated, if you recall, just before the summer, that there is capacity now for more people on public transport.’
It came after Health Secretary Matt Hancock veered wildly off-message by admitting he had ‘absolutely no idea’ how many of his staff were still working from home and was more interested in ‘how effectively people work’.
He remarks yesterday about Department of Health workers came as CBI chief Dame Carolyn Fairbairn warned commercial centres risk being permanent ‘ghost towns’.
New Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures revealed yesterday that Britain’s high streets are rebounding at a slower rate than shopping centres and retail parks.
They highlighted how the reluctance of staff to return to workplaces is harming businesses.
In an interview on Times Radio, Mr Hancock was asked if he knew what percentage of staff in the Department for Health were working at home.
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ he responded.
‘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.