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.