RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: Get off your Peloton, or you’ll be on your bike! WFH has been scrapped and Boris wants the Civil Service to lead the charge back to the office… But the unions, with dreary predictability, are in uproar
Say what you like about partygoers at the notorious Downing Street Bring Your Own Booze bash, but at least they turned up for work that day.
That’s more than can be said for countless other civil servants who were pedalling on their Pelotons or munching Hobnobs in front of daytime television, while pretending to ‘work from home’.
Much of Britain was getting back to normal yesterday, as commuters packed trains and buses on their way to the office.
There were traffic jams in all our major cities, although this could probably be down to the crazy congestion created by ‘temporary’ cycle lanes and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods brought in by anti-car fanatics under cover of Covid.
Rush hour returned with a vengeance as employees responded to the lifting of Omicron Plan B restrictions. Yet London’s Whitehall, at the very heart of government, remained virtually deserted, just as it has been for the past 22 months.
Working From Home, like bike lanes and LTNs, was also supposed to be a temporary measure. However, as far as millions of people are concerned it is now an entitlement, set in stone.
Say what you like about partygoers at the notorious Downing Street Bring Your Own Booze bash, but at least they turned up for work that day. That’s more than can be said for countless other civil servants who were pedalling on their Pelotons or munching Hobnobs in front of daytime television, while pretending to ‘work from home’
The Prime Minister’s exhortation to civil servants to get back to their desks was widely and contemptuously ignored.
With depressing predictability, public sector union leaders went bananas over the absurd notion their members might actually report for duty.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association, which represents senior government mandarins, spluttered indignantly that the PM’s instruction to return to the office was ‘insulting’.
He sounded just like Fred Kite, the stroppy shop steward played memorably by Peter Sellers in the brilliant Boulting Brothers’ 1959 industrial relations satire I’m All Right Jack.
Penman is someone whose members are paid six-figure salaries, some as much as £275,000 a year, yet he thinks it is unreasonable to actually expect them to turn up for work. You couldn’t make it up.
He talks about highly rewarded staff being ‘forced’ back to work, as if they are rounded up at gunpoint and herded into the office in shackles.
Another major civil service union, the PCS, said: ‘There should not be a reckless, headlong rush to increase numbers at workplaces.
‘Instead, there needs to be a properly planned approach, which allows the employer and the union to negotiate safe arrangements.’
Elf’n’safety is the excuse wheeled out constantly to justify the culture of institutionalised idleness which has set in since the first lockdown in March 2020. And when we knew little about the Covid virus, an ultra-cautious approach was only sensible.
But following Britain’s spectacularly successful vaccination programme and with Omicron on the wane — and about as deadly as the common cold or a bad hangover — that simply won’t wash any more. There is no good reason why staff can’t resume their former working practices.
Still, I warned you a couple of months into the pandemic that even when the Covid crisis abated there would be nothing normal about the so-called New Normal.
Millions now take it as an inalienable right that they are entitled to decide when and where they work.
Listen to callers on radio phone-in shows protesting that it is unfair to make them go back to their offices. As the ex Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said in other circumstances, they’ve never had it so good.
They speak of their enviable new work/life balance and all the money they are saving on rail fares by not having to commute into town every day.
Millions now take it as an inalienable right that they are entitled to decide when and where they work
During the first (or was it the second?) lockdown, I heard a man from Canterbury, in Kent, boasting on LBC that he was £10,000 a year better off, as he no longer had to buy a season ticket or an expensive sandwich for his lunch. Why should he fork out a fiver for a fancy barista coffee when he can make one simply by walking to his kettle in the kitchen?
On further examination, it turned out he was still receiving his generous London weighting allowance, something to which he should no longer be entitled since he was ‘working from home’ full time.
Had I been his employer listening to that call, I would have immediately cut his salary by ten grand for the duration of the pandemic and only restored it when he came back to the office.
As I wrote at the time, he might have been happy as a pig in clover, but one man’s WFH is another’s P45.
The hospitality sector has been hammered by successive lockdowns. Pubs, cafes and sandwich bars have closed in droves. Some of our city centres may never recover.
But, hey, who cares? Just so long as a smug ex-commuter finds himself ten grand a year richer.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I worked as an industrial correspondent, the power in the labour market was concentrated among the big manual workers’ unions. With the decline of manufacturing, the pendulum has shifted. The most truculent unions now represent what we used to call ‘white collar’ staff, predominently in the public sector.
It is the Civil Service unions and, especially, the teaching unions who are most resistant to any move to return to normality. If they had their way, their members would WFH for ever, on full pay.
Certainly they haven’t suffered serious hardship as a result of Covid. To the best of my knowledge, no one on the public payroll was furloughed, forced to take a pay cut or made redundant.
Yet virtually everyone I know in the private sector, from directors downwards, accepted a significant reduction in their income to help their companies make it through the crisis.
In the case of small business owners and the self-employed, they had no option. The Government threw money at the problem, but hundreds of thousands missed out.
And for all the communitarian rhetoric and the saucepan-bashing for the NHS, I argued early on that we were not all in this together.
While doctors, nurses, orderlies, delivery drivers, supermarket assistants, telecoms engineers, postal workers, builders, you name it, braved Covid and turned out every day in all weathers to keep us fed and watered and ensure Britain kept ticking over, office staff battened down the hatches. As I asked back in August 2020: Why was it safe for White Van Man to go to work, but not White Blouse Woman?
The poor lambs bleated that it was far too dangerous to take a crowded bus to their desks, or tap away on a word processor which could be carrying the deadly virus.
Curiously, though, when the sun came out the risk-averse professional classes cast their fears aside and headed for the beaches.
And when Dishi Rishi unveiled his Money For Nothing And Your Chips For Free deal, there were millions of takers desperate to get their snouts in the trough.
I can remember wondering out loud at the time that if it was safe enough to sit in a restaurant cheek by jowl over a subsidised hamburger, why wasn’t it equally safe to go to work?
For the record, I don’t have a problem with WFH provided it doesn’t impinge on anyone’s performance or cause inconvenience to the paying public. Some firms are happy with a hybrid model, which sees staff in the office only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays — the so-called TW*Ts. If private companies are willing to let their staff work from home, that’s up to them. It’s their bottom line.
But clearly, when it comes to the public sector, where taxpayers’ money is involved, that’s not the case. The failings caused by institutionalised absenteeism at the Passport Office and the DVLA have been extensively documented, with hundreds of thousands of people waiting months for passports and driving licences.
The Covid First NHS bureaucracy has failed miserably to meet the demand for life-saving surgery and treatment for other conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
In some towns and cities, householders are going weeks without having their rubbish or recycling collected. Try ringing any government department or council office and see how long it takes them to answer, if they can be bothered at all ‘because of Covid’.
To my mind, the most telling story during this pandemic was the revelation that although the Civil Service Club in Whitehall was practically empty during the week, it was booked solid at weekends.
So comfortably-off members who considered it far too dangerous to venture into their offices had absolutely no such worries when it came to travelling up to town for an overnight stay, a West End show and dinner on a Friday or Saturday night.
These are the very people the mandarins’ union leader now says the Government is ‘insulting’ by asking them to return to their desks.
The coming weeks will be a test of the Prime Minister’s mettle. Until now, he has been strangely reluctant to confront the civil service unions over their refusal to do the job they are paid for — just as he caved in time and again to the rail unions when he was Mayor of London.
I’ve said before that Boris should take a leaf out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook. When Reagan was President of the United States he told striking air traffic controllers that unless they went back to work sharpish, they would be sacked. He was as good as his word.
The Prime Minister must now insist that all civil servants report to their departments immediately. Anyone without a reasonable excuse, such as a doctor’s note, will be considered to have declared themselves redundant and will be dismissed without compensation.
He could start with Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where fewer than 20 per cent have been turning up in the office.
She recently boasted how she, too, was working from home, where she is able to put in an extra hour on her £1,350 Peloton every day.
Boris should read her the riot act and tell her in no uncertain terms that unless she is back at her desk on Monday, she’ll be on her bike — permanently.
To be fair to the Downing Street partygoers, they have by all accounts been on parade and working flat out during the pandemic. We would have cut them some slack had they not cynically flouted the rules they had imposed on the rest of us.
Now that the panic is over and restrictions are being lifted, it’s time for staff at every other government department to return to their offices without delay.
Heck, we won’t even mind if they have a party in the garden after work, provided they bring their own booze.
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