Hancock Goes Off Message as Johnson Urges Britons Back to Work

U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he’s not concerned about whether his officials work from home, even as Boris Johnson urges workers back to offices to give a vital boost to city centers and the economy.

The prime minister has been urging people to have the “confidence” to return to their workplaces, amid warnings companies that rely on commuters will struggle to recover from the pandemic. Johnson will lead a major publicity campaign once schools in England reopen next week, the Telegraph newspaper reported late Thursday, citing ministers and officials it didn’t identify.

Yet on Times Radio earlier Thursday, Hancock offered a different view.

“What I care about is that people perform,” he said when asked if he is concerned about civil servants working from home. “And so the people I work with, some of them have been working from home, some come in sometimes, some are in full-time, and what matters to me is that they deliver and, frankly, they’ve been delivering at an unbelievable rate.”


That’s much closer to the position of many large employers, who have been cautious about telling staff to come back to work. But it’s another example of mixed messaging from the government, which has been criticized for responding too slowly to the coronavirus pandemic and forced into U-turns on key issues such as testing and wearing face masks.

According to the Telegraph, ministers will warn that workers will be more vulnerable to corporate restructuring if they continue to stay at home, as part of a carrot-and-stick approach to cajoling Britons back to the office. The Times newspaper also reported that senior members of Johnson’s Conservative Party had urged the prime minister to get people back to work.

Hancock Goes Off Message as Johnson Urges Britons Back to Work

The threat to city center businesses was laid bare Thursday when sandwich chain Pret a Manger Ltd. said it would cut 2,800 jobs in its U.K. stores, or about a third of its employees. Sales are down about 60% from a year earlier and roughly the same level as August 2010, the company said.

“The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day,” Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper Thursday. “Some of our busiest city centers resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade.”

Johnson’s pledge that schools in England will fully reopen next week is a key part of his strategy to kickstart the economy, because getting children back into classrooms is vital to get parents back into offices.

Setting Example

But trying to persuade Britons that traveling into city centers and sitting in offices is safe also puts the spotlight on the government and whether its own civil servants are back in their departments, which is why Johnson is unlikely to have welcomed Hancock’s comments.

The health secretary also struck a different tone from Johnson in another crucial way: In recent days, the government has seemed to be at war with its own civil service, most recently ousting the top official at the Department for Education following the recent exams chaos.

Hancock’s own reorganization of the U.K.’s public health system last week also saw a senior official sidelined. But on Thursday, he was careful to praise his staff in public.

“People are working incredibly hard because, ultimately, it’s a mission-driven job and, in the middle of a pandemic, the whole department has stepped up to that mission,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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