A civil service boss has suggested some government offices in Whitehall could shut because of a permanent shift to more working from home.
Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm said more civil servants are now able to work ‘flexibly’ – both from home and in the office – as a result of changes made during the Covid pandemic.
The Chief Operating Officer for the Civil Service said in-person meetings are ‘not necessary now to anything like the same extent’ as before the coronavirus crisis.
He pointed out that Whitehall is ‘expensive London real estate’ and there are ‘definitely some big opportunities there’.
The mandarin’s remarks will annoy many private sector workers who have been ordered to return to their desks as soon as possible to get the country’s economy back on track.
Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee yesterday, Mr Chisholm was asked whether civil servants would be back at their desks for the Government’s spending review on October 27.
He replied that it was ‘not fixed at the moment’, adding: ‘What we have found is that overall at civil service level we have found that we can move to a greater number of people working more flexibly, both in some cases working from home and in many cases across offices across the whole of the UK – which is a huge positive.
‘Again, those of you who’ve been on this committee for many years will know how many times civil servants have felt it’s difficult and expensive to kind of bring everybody down to a meeting in London face-to-face.
‘That is not necessary now to anything like the same extent. As well as that expensive London real estate. So, definitely some big opportunities there.’
Asked whether most of the staff in the Cabinet Office were back at their desks, he said it was ‘pretty full’ yesterday but added: ‘It will vary across the estate according to the nature of people’s tasks.’
He said: ‘Also we’re still in the presence of Covid and there needs to be health assessments done to each building, but we’ve done ours and we’ve got quite a buzz in the office I would say today.’
Sir Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, said the number of staff returning has been ‘rising’ and that guidance would be reassessed.
He said: ‘Numbers have been on a steadily rising trend. We’ll be reassessing all of our guidance when we get the new government guidance tomorrow as part of the Prime Minister’s announcement.’
There is growing frustration among ministers that the Civil Service has failed to take the lead and order staff back to their desks.
Official ‘work from home’ Whitehall guidance was removed on July 19 and businesses have been told that the Government ‘expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer’.
But insiders say Whitehall had only seen a slight increase in staff back at their desks, with the numbers in the office still ‘pretty low’.