ROSS CLARK: No wonder the nation is grinding to a halt when the engine of government is parked at home
There is one group of British workers that has been spared the hassle of having to queue for petrol alongside the plumbers, electricians, delivery drivers and healthcare workers desperate for fuel so they can carry on doing their jobs.
Step forward the many thousands of civil servants who are still working from home in spite of the economy having almost fully reopened as Covid starts to recede.
Their absence from the workplace raises an intriguing question: is there a link between the chaos afflicting motorists (not to mention a backlog in processing vital documents, from passports to probate, plus queues at Heathrow passport control, the M25 protest and the Channel migrant crisis) and the reluctance of so many civil servants to return to desks?
And if they won’t go back, what kind of example does that set for the rest of the country?
Many thousands of ivil servants have been spared the hassle of queuing for petrol (pictured: queues at Shell in Islington, London) as they continue working from home
How does it make public-facing workers — healthcare staff, transport and retail employees, and Border Force officials — feel?
In normal times, all these situations would be handled in crisis meetings led by Cabinet ministers and Whitehall’s mandarins, supported by staff with intimate knowledge of what is going on.
Quite how any ministry does this when so many of its staff are communicating via Zoom, with potentially dodgy broadband connections and all the distractions of a non-office environment, is beyond me.
The fuel crisis ought to have been easy to handle. There is no genuine shortage of fuel, just insufficient lorry drivers to maintain normal deliveries.
Instead, poor government messaging has led to panic, with too little effort being put into informing and reassuring the public, or into planning how essential fuel users can be prioritised.
As for the lorry driver shortage, that’s been a problem for years.
Is there a link between chaos afflicting motorists, not to mention queues at London Stansted passport control (pictured), and the reluctance of civil servants to return to their desks?
If they won’t go back, what kind of example does that set for the rest of the country? The moment Boris Johnson (pictured) orders them back to their desks can’t come soon enough
Had officials been on top of it — and informed ministers accordingly — those 5,000 extra visas for drivers from Europe would have been sanctioned months ago, in anticipation of rising demand as the recovery began.
As the Mail reports today, adding to the problem are the 40,000 drivers still waiting to take their tests after exams were cancelled during lockdown, and the hundreds of qualified drivers waiting for the green light from the DVLA. Why haven’t officials fast-tracked these applicants?
Those paid to have their finger on Britain’s economic pulse are Missing in Action.
These people on generous salaries, with comfortable pensions to come, are meant to be working in teams at the heart of government but, in reality, they are working in isolation from spare bedrooms, garden offices or the dining room table.
Disgracefully, the Government refuses to say how many civil servants are working remotely.
When asked this month by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the head of the Civil Service, Alex Chisholm, declined to even give a figure for his own department, the Cabinet Office.
My own enquiries have ended with a blank — with the Department for Transport, for example, telling me that it was ‘unable to give out’ the figure, despite reports that fewer than 15 per cent of officials turn up to its HQ each day. The Home Office is worse, apparently, with just 10 per cent showing up.
It’s as if these figures were a state secret, rather than something every taxpayer has a right to know.
The truth is that there is an astonishing disconnect between Whitehall — which is behaving as if the nation were still in lockdown — and the real world.
In cities and towns, pubs are filling, you can’t get a table at many restaurants, and theatres and cinemas are far busier. Many of us are also booking late sunshine breaks and pre-Christmas jaunts abroad.
Yet apparently it is still too dangerous for state bureaucrats to return to the office — even with anti-Covid measures such as ventilation and partitions.
In June, the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents many civil servants, threatened strike action if its members were ‘made’ to return to the office.
As well as the petrol chaos, the UK is also gripped by a migrant crisis as the number of people crossing the Channel into Dover (pictured on September 26) continues to increase
Yet again, when faced with recalcitrant unions, the Government seems to have thrown in the towel.
In August, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng rejected suggestions that civil servants might have their pay cut if they were no longer commuting.
The Department of Health and Social Care also abandoned plans to require officials to go to the office, even for just four to eight days a month.
As a result, we taxpayers are handing staff thousands of pounds a year in extra pay to cover the expense of commuting or living in central London —when in fact many rarely, if ever, qualify as they are ‘WFH’.
Yet exactly how much work in being done is highly suspect. There are reports of holidays being cancelled as passports failed to come through on time (with delays of up to three months in some cases), and of people unable to start jobs because they are still waiting for criminal record checks.
Bereaved families can’t settle estates as probate has not come through, and other Britons may have to wait as long as February 2022 for tax rebates. Dare to question this and the usual get-out clause is trotted out: Covid is to blame.
At the same time, civil service chiefs and union leaders insist that their staff are working really well from home.
But they can’t have it both ways: either working from home is good for productivity — in which case public agencies should be working more efficiently than they used to — or it isn’t. If it’s the latter, staff must be ordered back to the office pronto.
Ministers have only to look at their own research to show that it’s not all hunky dory.
Last October, the Government Property Agency published a report based on the experience of 25,828 civil servants, 98 per cent of whom were working from home.
The employee-centric survey, of course, found that most civil servants were happy with the arrangement.
There has also been a backlog in processing vital documents, from passports to probate, the M25 protest (pictured on September 27) and the Channel migrant crisis
Yet, tellingly, 37 per cent said they found working from home ‘sub-optimal’, and 23 per cent claimed it was a ‘poor’ experience. (Oddly, the survey asked staff to assess their ‘perceived personal productivity’ without making any effort to measure their actual output.)
What we now have is a civil service that exists solely in order to promote the health and wellbeing of its staff rather than serve the country.
Typifying this deplorable attitude is Sarah Healey, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who told a conference last week that her staff would be expected to be in the office for no more than two days a week.
She hailed remote working as a ‘very good thing’ that lets her see more of her children and do regular workouts on her Peloton bike.
Oh, and she preferred Zoom meetings as real ones were too ‘dominated by men’.
What a contrast in attitudes between our laid-back civil service and the most dynamic private businesses now leading us out of the recession.
Goldman Sachs CEO, David Solomon, described working from home as an ‘aberration’ which should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.
For civil servants, who plan for crises, working from home should no longer be an option. We need officials to be manning the nation’s control room, not trying to organise virtual meetings in between workouts.
The moment when Boris Johnson sees the light and orders them back to their desks can’t come soon enough.