If you want a measure of how in control of things the government currently feels, look no further than today's briefing on encouraging workers back into offices. A nationwide campaign to reassure people that employers have made their workplaces 'Covid-secure' will launch next week, as ministers worry about the impact on city centres of workers continuing to stay at home. But a row has raged today over whether the government is less interested in reassuring employees and more interested in threatening them.
Labour has accused ministers of the latter after a briefing appeared in this morning's Telegraph suggesting that workers will be encouraged to think of the cost of not going back into the office. One government source told the paper: 'People need to understand that working from home is not the benign option it seems. We need workers to be alert to what decisions their bosses may take in the weeks ahead. If they are only seeing workers once a fortnight then that could prove problematic for some employees in the future.'
This modern 'on yer bike message' sounded strangely un-Conservative: what business does a Tory government have in suggesting it knows better than bosses about who is worth holding onto and who isn't? It used to be the case that Tories were in favour of freeing up businesses to get on with things, rather than trying to meddle at such a granular level regarding hiring and firing. It also used to be the case that Tories accepted employers had a better idea of what makes a good employee than someone in Whitehall: if bosses have seen that many of their staff are more productive when working from home, then why should they spend as much as they do on office space?
Of course, the rationale for getting people back to work in their offices is that city centres and the businesses in them are seriously struggling. Brits aren't buying sandwiches at lunchtime any more, they're not going to the pub near their office after work, and they aren't catching public transport into work. But the fortunes of Pret A Manger aren't the responsibility of employers, or indeed of their staff who are now pushing to work from home more often.
Earlier in the pandemic, Rishi Sunak and colleagues would talk warmly about the way the government had 'put its arms around every single worker'. Now, it seems, the government wants to end the cosy hug and have a holy good shout. These threats – which some Whitehall sources have tried to row back from today – smack of an administration that doesn't feel in control at the moment and so is trying to talk big in order to get attention and seem authoritative. But a confident government would show far greater plasticity: it may well be the case that the era of people travelling into an office five days a week is now over and rather than shouting at the tides, ministers should be doing more creative thinking about how to adapt to the post-Covid world.
Of course, returning to the office is important for many people. Fraser explains why in his Telegraph column today. There are workers for whom lockdown has been utter hell because their office has been their only time away from an abusive partner, for instance. Charities working with victims of abuse immediately saw that forcing everyone to stay at home would lead to an escalation in domestic violence, and a terrifying decrease in the opportunities for victims to disclose these incidents to others and seek help. Others will struggle with the isolation that working from home full-time can create. Graduates need to be around older colleagues in order to learn how to do their jobs. Not everyone has space for a desk in their home, and some workers will be delighted to take their laptops out of their living areas and back into a workplace. But, as with everything, it's much more complicated than a short briefing would suggest. Generally, ministers are less likely to understand how that complexity plays out in each workplace than employers, their staff and trade unions are.
It also isn't clear how a blanket return to the office would even work on a practical level. To make a workplace 'Covid-secure', many employers have had to change the layout of offices so that fewer staff are in at the same time. They therefore need some employees to work from home in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines. It would be strange to then punish those staff for enabling others to return to the office.
It would also be strange for a government to tell people that they must stay at home or bad things will happen, then tack to telling them they must go into the office or bad things will happen – and then switch back to telling them to stay at home and save lives when their area goes into a local lockdown. There is a law of diminishing returns here: after a while, people just stop listening.
And this is one of the big problems for the government. Its communications strategy isn't working. It is confused, swinging between threats and more honest, helpful briefings. Comms is the thing Tory MPs currently complain about the most in private, above Gavin Williamson and other ministerial colleagues who've got fine messes in their departments. These MPs see a very difficult autumn coming and wonder why No. 10 isn't trying to be as clear and simple as possible. At least at present ministers can talk about the need for people to return to their workplaces. Come October and the end of the furlough scheme, many won't have a job to do whether from home or an office. Threats won't help ministers feel in control then.