Working from home damaging economy, Raab warns

Dominic Raab
Dominic Raab

The government has warned that home working is damaging the economy as fears grow for city centre businesses.

“The economy needs to have people back at work,” Dominic Raab told the BBC.

The foreign secretary said the coronavirus lockdown had led to a “massive shrinking of the economy”.

“We are trying to bounce back as strongly as possible,” Mr Raab said, although trade unions and a Bank of England official suggest a swift return to offices is unlikely.

Alex Brazier, the Bank’s executive director for financial stability, has previously said a “sharp return” to “dense office environments” should not be expected.

Mr Raab acknowledged that there was likely to be a “bit more” remote working in future. However, he said: “It is important to send a message that we need to get Britain back up and running, the economy motoring on all cylinders.”

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, he acknowledged that the return to offices could happen in “incremental stages”.

‘Good health reason’

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds called for a “real strategy about how this can be achieved”.

He said Labour had supported the “gradual reopening of the economy” but called for the government to focus on a test, track and isolate strategy. And he said no one should be threatened with the sack for wanting to continue working from home.

Mr Raab said people should not return to the office if there was a “good health reason” not to do so.

The shift toward working from home has seriously harmed High Street businesses that depend on passing trade from office workers and commuters. Sandwich chain Pret A Manger plans to cut 3,000 jobs – a third of its workforce – while Upper Crust-owner SSP Group has said it will axe up to 5,000 jobs.

City offices sit empty and cafes remain shut as workers stay at home
City offices sit empty and cafes remain shut as workers stay at home

The head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that city centres could become “ghost towns” if the prime minister did not convince office workers to return.

The push to get workers back into the office comes as train companies gear up to increase services.

From Monday, the number of trains will return to around 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the Rail Delivery Group, although the number of passengers each carriage can carry has been halved because of social distancing.

The latest numbers from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest there has been an increase in people travelling to work in the last two months, with fewer working exclusively from home.

It found 57% of working adults – out of 1,644 surveyed – had travelled to work at some point in the past seven days, while 20% had worked solely from home.

The BBC reported on Saturday that the government was urging Whitehall bosses to “move quickly” to get more civil servants back into the office. But unions have described the government’s attitude as outdated and threatened to strike if workers’ safety is put at risk.

Meanwhile, media company Bloomberg has given staff a budget of up to £56 ($75) a day to travel into its offices.

“We are pleased to provide up to $75 USD a day to cover out-of-pocket transportation costs when commuting going forward during the pandemic – whether for car services, tolls, parking or public transportation,” the company told staff in an internal memo.

But others have shunned the office. Outsourcing firm Capita – a major government contractor – is planning to permanently close more than a third of its offices in the UK in favour of more flexible working.