Civil servants and local officials must "get back to their offices", Boris Johnson’s former chief of staff has said, as he warned that "Whitehall is dead" and the absence of staff from council offices is harming local firms that rely on their trade.
In a rare intervention, Lord Udny-Lister, who worked in No 10 until earlier this year, said he was concerned that government departments contained "corridors of empty rooms" and questioned how the civil service could train new recruits or enable officials to "build up relationships" if a majority are working from home.
The current situation is "not sustainable", he warned.
The peer, a former council leader and deputy mayor of London, also warned that many businesses in Westminster and town centres across the country rely on trade from civil servants and local officials.
Urging a return to work for public servants, he said: "Now is the time to start trusting the vaccines."
Lord Udny-Lister’s intervention comes after Mr Johnson confirmed that the Government is planning to lift the current "work from home" guidance from July 19 and enable employers to “start planning a safe return to the workplace”.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, said it was "really important" for young people to "be in your workplace and learn from others more directly".
Working from home poll
But Lord Udny-Lister said that there was "very little movement" when it came to the civil service returning to Whitehall. "There is no indication that they are coming back in force at the moment," he said.
The peer added that when he had been to see ministers in their departments he would usually just come across a handful of officials working in the vast government buildings in and around Whitehall.
"When I was in Downing Street, I often had to go and see ministers and I’d walk through corridors of empty rooms", he said.
"That was the right thing to do at that time, but we’re past that time. People have got to get back.
"There is a problem in government that people are crammed in and obviously they’ve got to be spread out more. That can be done by working from home some of the time."
‘You can’t build up relationships with your team over Zoom calls’
Mr Johnson’s former adviser, who led Wandsworth Council from 1992 to 2011, insisted that he was not suggesting that "everybody has to be in the office every day of the week".
But he added: "How can you get graduates or anybody new into the civil service and train them? How do you build up relationships with your team? You can’t build up relationships with your team over Zoom calls. It’s just not possible. You need to get back in at least for part of the week."
He continued: "There are bits of the civil service which have … always been in. They’ve managed it quite successfully. Downing Street is a good example … But they’re the exceptions to the rule. I just don’t think it’s sustainable."
Lord Udny-Lister said he was concerned about the effect on local businesses of civil servants and council officials continuing to work from home.
Buildings such as the vast headquarters of Croydon Council in south London are "the life" of the area, he said, adding: "You’re not going to get the coffee shops of Croydon back together until the civil servants come back."
He added: "Whitehall is dead. If you go into any sandwich shop, they’ll tell you. There’s no trade."