‘Working from home’ is damaging hundreds of thousands of small businesses, the wider economy and the UK's social fabric. More than 18 months after the first lockdown, our great city centres are half empty.
Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden put it best when he said thousands of civil servants still working from home should get off their exercise bikes and back into the office. I agree – our public servants should lead by example, and the rest of us should join them. Yet Mr Dowden's comments caused an outcry last week, which is telling in itself.
Today, more than 18 months since the first lockdown, our great city centres are half empty. Restaurants, cafes, shops of all kinds are being choked to death. And none are more at risk than businesses located in the streets and districts once populated by our army of civil servants. Streets which today lie silent. Working from home is rapidly emerging as a new 'right', one vigorously championed by many in the comfortable classes – not least Sarah Healey, Permanent Secretary of Mr Dowden's former department, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. She has certainly led by example, boasting about preferring to work from home as that allows her to spend more time astride her Peloton – an upmarket exercise bike. Never mind the damage all this does, not just to hundreds of thousands of small businesses, but to the wider economy and our social fabric.
Mr Dowden was immediately attacked as 'anti civil servant' for his remarks. As it happens, nothing could be further from the truth. In my time in government, I had some quite brilliant civil servants without whose dedication I could not have developed the Universal Credit system. These highly driven colleagues worked long hours at their desks and my respect for them is unending. Yet there are good reasons why all civil servants who remain at home should now return.
We are social beings, after all. We work at our best when connected with others, and with new and different ideas. We thrive on laughter with colleagues or unexpected discussions at the coffee machine. The awkward pantomime of a video conference call is no real substitute, let alone the narrow echo chamber of social media. There can be no question that being together makes us more productive, particularly in the face of complex or seemingly intractable problems.
Meanwhile, studies now suggest that social isolation during the pandemic has led to a troubling increase in depression and other forms of mental illness. For the sake of government itself, our civil servants must get back into the office after this terrible Covid hiatus. There are other reasons, too, why I believe everyone should be back – and one concerns those who work for some of the lowest wages in the private sector. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a restaurant in Westminster for dinner. It wasn't late, yet I was surprised to see the place was only one quarter full. I spoke to the restaurateur who also, I recalled, owned a very good Italian coffee shop nearby. Yet when I asked how the cafe was doing, he replied that business was dire so he'd decided to close it down. This particular coffee shop had been near to a number of government departments and had long relied on custom from the civil servants working there. That trade had all but vanished since the Covid-19 crisis, and now he fears the restaurant could go the same way.
His experience rings true with thousands in the hospitality trade in London and beyond. The people who work in shops, hotels, restaurants and theatres live off relatively low pay. Yet they are essential. Without a thriving workplace, their livelihoods are in jeopardy – and so is the eco-system of our cities. This is a problem well beyond the all-too-quiet streets of Westminster, of course. Around the country, government agencies have behaved in the same sort of way. Rather than attempting to work out how to deliver the best possible service during the crisis, they simply closed their doors. Some agencies finally reopened up in the late spring of this year.
Among the most notable offenders are the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, the DVSA, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). More than a year ago, I decided to take the DVSA-run motorcycle test. However, I found it was impossible to organise because the whole system had simply ground to a halt. I was astounded. Thousands use motorbikes and scooters for work and this shutdown affected them badly. When, after a long wait, I eventually managed to sit the test, the examiners started moaning about the rapidly growing backlog because the DVSA didn't train examiners. When I asked their managers how this had come about, they trotted out the wearisome mantra that social-distancing requirements were to blame.
Never mind that there are few driving experiences quite so self-isolated as riding a motorbike in the open air. There are more serious questions facing the DVSA and DVLA, too.
Who in these agencies was thinking about the growing shortage of lorry drivers, for example? It didn't take Brain of Britain to understand that after a year of no training or testing for the drivers of heavy goods vehicles, we would be heading for a crisis after lockdown. Didn't anyone think of ways to conduct training with masks and regular Covid tests? The fact that we are now desperately trying to get more drivers was wholly predictable. Yet they failed to predict it, let alone to act. All too many civil servants and government employees, like those in the DVSA, have failed to see Covid as a challenge. And instead of rising to that challenge, as the wartime generation would have done, they have thrown their hands up in despair – before locking the doors and scuttling off home, of course.
As one Minister told me recently, so few civil servants now come to work it feels positively spooky in the evenings. When I think of all the brave civil servants who went to work in the 1940s, determined to do their bit regardless of the threat from falling bombs, I wonder what has happened to us as a nation. I realise that civil servants are not alone in their reluctance to return to the office. Businesses up and down the land have faced the same problem – and they still do.
But I have always thought that the role of the government and the Civil Service was to give a lead, now more than ever. Only today are we beginning to feel the true results of shutting down our economy on three separate occasions. It has been devastating. Repairing this terrible destruction requires a superhuman effort from us all.
Yes, getting people back to their offices is difficult, yet it is vital for all of us that we do so.