CBI boss Carolyn Fairbairn demands Boris Johnson leads UK firms back into the workplace to revive struggling economy

Empty Station

Boris Johnson must do more to get office workers back at their desks, a senior business leader has said today.

Writing in today’s Daily Mail, the director-general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, has said that getting staff back into offices and workplaces is as important as the return of pupils to school.

‘The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,’ says Dame Carolyn, who speaks for almost 200,000 firms. ‘They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.

‘The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.’

Dame Carolyn’s intervention will pressure the Prime Minister to match his rhetoric on the need to return to school with similar words – and action – about workplaces.

A survey of major employers by Trends Research for Vodafone revealed that most have only a small percentage of staff back in the office – and many are telling people they will not be back at their desks until January at the earliest.

Firms opting to keep most staff working from home for the rest of the year include NatWest, which employs almost 50,000; BT, which has 40,000 staff at home; KPMG, which has only 10 per cent of its 16,000 staff in the office; and Vodafone, whose 7,850 staff are almost all at home.

Tech giant Microsoft has said it will not start returning its 3,000 UK staff to their desks until at least November.

A separate survey by the BBC yesterday found that 50 of the country’s biggest employers have no plans to return all staff to the office full time.

The Government last month dropped the formal pandemic advice that people should work from home if possible.

Sadiq Khan says home working is a ‘big problem’ for central London

Mr Johnson said ‘start to go back to work now if you can’ and ordered Whitehall to draw up detailed plans for getting more civil servants back. However the return to work across Government appears to have been only a trickle, rather than a flood.

No 10 was yesterday unable to say how many officials were back at their desks.

Ministers are in talks about workplace testing for coronavirus in order to give staff more confidence to return. But talks are still at an early stage and there has been no effort to encourage commuters back onto public transport.

A Whitehall source said last night: ‘Getting people back to work is something the PM feels strongly about. It is slowly happening in Whitehall but not at the pace we would want.’

Jace Tyrrell, of the New West End Company, a business group, said shops in central London could not survive unless office workers returned. He said traders still had only half their normal customers.

‘We are encouraging a very strong instruction from the Prime Minister and the current mayor of London to encourage Londoners back to the office and work – that’s the only way we are going to survive this year for the retail and hospitality sectors in the West End,’ he added.

Andy Street, Tory mayor of the West Midlands, said Birmingham’s public transport system was still only carrying 20 per cent of pre-Covid passengers. He said this could rise to 50 per cent in the coming months, but added: ‘This is undeniably a very difficult situation for businesses that thrive on the back of the big office occupiers being there.

‘What we are trying to do is steadily build confidence that it is safe to return to the city centre.’

Tory MP Nickie Aiken, whose Cities of London and Westminster constituency has been badly hit by the lack of office workers, urged senior managers to ‘show leadership’ by getting back to the office themselves next month to lead a wider return to work.

She said: ‘It is not just the big brands that are feeling the pain without workers popping out to eat or shop in their lunch hours or after work.

‘The independent shops, cafes, restaurants and bars are also hurting. The list is endless and without offices returning these small businesses are likely to shut up shop for good.’

Mrs Aiken also rounded on London mayor Sadiq Khan for failing to make clear to commuters that it was now safe to use public transport again. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith urged the Prime Minister to ‘get a grip’, adding: ‘Otherwise we are going to face an even worse economic catastrophe than we already are.’

Sir Iain said the Government should ‘lead by example’ by insisting civil servants return to work.

But Dave Penman, of the First Division Association of senior civil servants, yesterday predicted more than two thirds of officials could still be at home at the end of the year. ‘Numbers are steadily going up but it’s not going to be huge numbers, it’s not going to be a majority by the end of the year.

‘We’ll probably get to 30 or 40 per cent over time.’