The government has backed away from suggestions that workers would be vulnerable to the sack if they continue to work from home amid a backlash.
Labour said it “beggars belief” that the government was “threatening people” during the coronavirus pandemic and asking them to “choose between their health and their job” as part of Boris Johnson’s drive to get workers back to the office.
It came after an unnamed government source told the Telegraph that workers need to be “alert” and that it could be “problematic” if bosses “are only seeing workers once a fortnight”.
“Suddenly the word ‘restructure’ is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position,” the source added.
An unnamed cabinet minister also told the newspaper that bosses “will realise some people weren’t working as hard as they thought”.
And transport secretary Grant Shapps insisted there was a “limit” to home working.
The briefing came as the prime minister reportedly prepared to launch a major drive to get workers back to the office, including reassurance that workplaces are safe and a new online tool to help people avoid the busiest trains and buses.
The prime minister and major business lobby the CBI are concerned about the economic impact of city centre “ghost towns”, with Pret A Manger announcing plans to cut 2,800 staff on Thursday.
But the issue has opened up a cabinet rift after health secretary Matt Hancock defended his own officials’ remote working, insisting that “what I care about is how effectively people work”, which put him at odds with chancellor Rishi Sunak.
There were also murmurings of discontent on Tory backbenches, as normally loyal MP Kevin Hollinrake said that if Covid-19 has been a catalyst to change working practices then “so be it”.
Responding to the briefings to the Telegraph, Shapps told Sky News workers and bosses “need to work together to resolve this” and highlighted employee protections if people have concerns about their workplace.
He went on: “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.”
Shadow business secretary Lucy Powell said: “It beggars belief that the government are threatening people like this during a pandemic.
“Forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable. No.10 should condemn this briefing and categorically rule out any such campaign.”
Responding to the Telegraph story, a government source said: “This is a deeply irresponsible headline with no truth behind it. Our priority has always and will always be protecting people’s jobs.”
Meanwhile, Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn was mocked online for writing an article headlined “one person’s working from home is another’s P45” before revealing in the 25th paragraph: “I should tell you like most people who write for a living, I’ve worked from home for the past 30-odd years, unless I’ve been broadcasting and needed to be in a studio”.