Civil servants were told to get back to their offices to set an example as work from home guidance was dropped yesterday.
Government departments urged staff to return after Boris Johnson told them to “show a lead” after the end of plan B Covid-19 measures.
Unions said that forcing civil servants back in to encourage the private sector was “insulting”, but the prime minister insisted that returning to the office was vital for younger workers.
The guidance was the first plan B measure to be dropped. Johnson made the immediate change, emboldened by data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that infections were falling in most parts of the UK and in most age groups.
He agreed with the Conservative backbencher David Johnston, who said the government should “actively encourage people to return to the office, because it’s not just good for the economy, it’s particularly important for younger workers who can’t get the skills, experience and networks they need by working from home”.
Johnson said that “across Whitehall, we need to show a lead and make sure that we get back to work, everybody gets back to work”.
He insisted that it was “safe to do so provided everybody exercises the due caution that I’ve set out”.
Within minutes, the Cabinet Office emailed staff to say that they were expected to start returning. Other departments are expected to do so today. Government sources said there were no plans for targets on getting back to desks, or how many days a week staff were expected to be in the office.
However, Dave Penman, head of the FDA civil service union, said: “[Johnson] fails to recognise the innovation and flexibility shown by the civil service in adapting to the changing guidance, but the prime minister also talks about a return to work when the civil service has been working flat out.
“The idea that forcing civil servants back into the office will somehow show a lead to the rest of the economy is frankly insulting to all those businesses who have made decisions that enhance their efficiency and profitability.”
The ONS said that across the UK infections were below 3.5 million last week, from 4.3 million the week before.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for the UK Health Security Agency, said falling cases were good news but that “some age groups are seeing plateaus or some still slight rises”.
“It’s very hard to see beyond two to three weeks and clearly the biggest change that’s going to happen is people’s behaviour,” she said. “People’s behaviour . . . will determine how fast infection can spread.
“The biggest response that we all have as individuals is to take our personal behaviour seriously and that really is driving towards vaccination uptake as well as . . . face coverings.”
Although deaths within 28 days of a positive test have yet to fall, Hopkins said that hospital admissions reflected a smaller burden from Omicron than from earlier variants.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said that about 40 per cent of people now in hospital with Covid-19 were “there not because they’ve got Covid, they happen to have Covid”.
The proportion was “almost double the percentage that we saw with Delta”, he said, suggesting that the deaths may also include many fatalities with, rather than caused by, the coronavirus.
Plan B draws to an end
From today Face coverings are no longer advised in classrooms and advice to work from home has been lifted.
From January 27 No face coverings in communal areas of schools and none required by law in any setting, but they will be advised in enclosed or crowded places. No Covid passes needed for nightclubs and other venues.
March 24 Legal requirements to self-isolate expire. PM would “very much expect not to renew them”. Requirements will be dropped earlier if positive data continues.