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Matt Hancock has defended working from home as long as people are doing their jobs “effectively” – despite concerns from No.10 and businesses about city centre “ghost towns”.
The health secretary said he had “no idea” how many of his department’s staff were coming to the office, adding: “What I care about is how effectively people work.”
But Hancock insisted that he did not disagree with Boris Johnson, who earlier this month stressed that people “should be going back to work” in England as the government lifted its advice to “work from home if you can”, issued as coronavirus took hold in the UK.
It came as CBI boss Carolyn Fairbairn urged the government to do more to get people back into city centre offices, warning jobs at firms like sandwich bars and dry cleaners are at stake if city centres continue resembling “ghost towns”.
Hancock said “of course” he would work with the CBI to try and encourage more people back into work.
But he stressed his primary concern for Department of Health and Social Care staff was performance.
He told Times Radio: “Obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job and also obviously employers need to make sure the offices are Covid-secure, as we have obviously at the Department of Health [sic] as you would fully expect us to.
“What I care about is that people perform.
“And so the people I work with, some of them have been working from home, some come in sometimes, some are in full time.
“And what matters to me is that they deliver.”
The health secretary also praised civil servants’ work ethic amid a row over the sacking of Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater over the exams debacle.
Dave Penman, leader of the FDA union which represents senior public servants, has accused No.10 of throwing civil service leaders “under a bus” to “shield” ministers like education secretary Gavin Williamson, who has come under fire over exams and face masks in school.
Hancock said of the officials in his department: “Frankly, they’ve been delivering at an unbelievable rate.
“There’s sometimes this caricature that the people who work in the civil service work nine to five days. It’s just completely untrue in my experience and people are working incredibly hard because ultimately it’s a mission-driven job.”
Asked if he disagreed with Johnson urging people to come back to the office where possible, Hancock said: “No, exactly as you put it – where you can.
“This has got to be done across the board, if you think about the nation as a whole, it’s got to be done in a Covid-secure way but employers are doing that and the rules are clear about that.
“We’ve reverted the employment rules back to their normal position.
“I’ve seen the CBI put out a statement yesterday saying people need to get back to the office and I have been talking to the chief of the CBI about what more we can do in addition to saying that the rules are this is a matter for employers as long as the place of employment is Covid-secure.
“Of course we will work with the CBI on the things that they want to see to help make this happen.”