Workers at Cambridgeshire County Council say they are 'forced to work from home' - Daily Mail

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New Shire Hall, the newly built headquarters of Cambridgeshire County Council, was opened last summer in Alconbury at a cost of £18million to the taxpayer but social distancing measures which are still in place mean it is yet to reach its full capacity.
But Cambridgeshire County Council has defended its Covid policies, citing higher-than-average case numbers and the positive impact WFH arrangements have on staff well being as well as retention and recruitment.
In Cambridgeshire, reports suggest the county council's brand new head office remains largely unoccupied due to lingering Covid social distancing measures which mean many staff members are still working from home - despite the Government scrapping WFH advice earlier this year.
' The new multi-million pound Cambridgeshire County Council headquarters (pictured) has been left virtually empty while staff continue to work from home, it has been claimed, as council bosses continue to enforce social distancing measures The new building in Alconbury replaced the former county council headquarters (pictured) based at Shire Hall in Cambridge 'The council aren’t being transparent and clear.
' Cambridgeshire County Council reportedly still has the majority of staff members working from home or at alternative venues meaning the brand new building has yet to reach full occupancy.

Workers at Cambridgeshire County Council say they are 'forced to work from home' - Daily Mail

Council workers have urged bosses to let them come back to work at their new multi million pound headquarters but have been told they are not allowed because of lingering Covid guidelines, it has been claimed. New Shire Hall, the newly built headquarters of Cambridgeshire County Council, was opened last summer in Alconbury at a cost of £18million to the taxpayer but social distancing measures which are still in place mean it is yet to reach its full capacity. Employees, who claim the building is at about 30 per cent, have said working remotely has made their jobs more difficult and that they are becoming 'de-skilled' because of the lack of collaborative working. Critics said the decision to continue limited use of the building despite the Government scrapping social distancing guidelines 'beggars belief' and said it was 'costing residents money'. But Cambridgeshire County Council has defended its Covid policies, citing higher-than-average case numbers and the positive impact WFH arrangements have on staff well being as well as retention and recruitment. It comes as the Civil Service is resisting attempts by ministers to force them to ditch working from home and return to Whitehall. London ministries are said to be less than half-full despite the efforts of Jacob Rees-Mogg to pry them from their spare rooms and kitchen tables. Mr Rees-Mogg's attempts to end WFH, including leaving notes on empty desks, have not been backed by other ministers, with Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries accusing him of a 'Dickensian' approach to the issue. The Cabinet is also said to have backed away from the idea of stripping London weighting from the salaries of people who are still not yet commuting back into the capital. Critics of home working claim it makes staff less productive and creative, damages career prospects and harms the economies of town centres. In Cambridgeshire, reports suggest the county council's brand new head office remains largely unoccupied due to lingering Covid social distancing measures which mean many staff members are still working from home - despite the Government scrapping WFH advice earlier this year. Only a handful of staff - many wearing face masks - were seen working inside the building on Tuesday with most socially distanced across desks and offices, while one angry worker claimed the building was only at 30 per cent capacity. The woman, a social services employee, was based at home from March 2020 and was only allowed back to the office in January. She told MailOnline that just five people of her 30-person team had been allowed to work from the office - though some were only in one day a week. She said: 'A couple of my colleagues are struggling with relationships at home. They've asked to work from the office and been told to wait. 'We're becoming deskilled - we're not mixing with other professionals. If you need advice I can't just ask, I have to call colleagues and sometimes they don't pick up.' The new multi-million pound Cambridgeshire County Council headquarters (pictured) has been left virtually empty while staff continue to work from home, it has been claimed, as council bosses continue to enforce social distancing measures The new building in Alconbury replaced the former county council headquarters (pictured) based at Shire Hall in Cambridge 'The council aren’t being transparent and clear. They should tell us exactly why we can't come in. They should give a time scale. There's no clarity. 'People like to have a choice and not be told they can't do something. It's not what we signed up for - to work from home. 'Inside it's good. The building itself is cosy - it's well designed and work-friendly but it needs more people.' Signs encouraging social distancing and the wearing of masks are installed throughout public areas of the building. Outside, the car park appeared to be below half capacity and one council employee said he didn’t know how busy the building was as he only worked from there one day a week. The man in his 50s said: 'I just work here one day a week. That’s when my team needs to be here.' Cambridgeshire County Council reportedly still has the majority of staff members working from home or at alternative venues meaning the brand new building has yet to reach full occupancy. A notice on the council's website, updated on March 25, states that all county council buildings, including those with reception services, are closed to the public due to Covid-19 regulations. The Government's work from home advice was scrapped in England back in January as the nation's focus moved to Living with Covid and returning to pre-pandemic lifestyles. Even patients in hospitals and GP surgeries are no longer advised to socially distance, although masks are still a requirement in NHS healthcare settings. The council, run by a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition, has refused to disclose how many staff members are currently working from home or exactly what Covid guidelines they are still enforcing. Council documents published last month show that even full council meetings are still being held at external venues due to 'the requirement for social distancing'. The document, presented to the Strategy and Resources Committee, reads: 'While the severity of the pandemic has reduced over recent months, COVID-19 remains a threat. 'A local authority meeting that was held recently has reportedly resulted in a significant number of participants contracting COVID-19. 'As a result of this, the MFR (multi-function room) will not be suitable for use for Full Council until the requirement for social distancing is removed under Public Health guidance and safety risk assessments. 'CCC will continue to use alternative venues that provides sufficient space for social distancing until it is deemed safe to reduce or remove the requirement for social distancing.' Despite acknowledging that the MFR 'formed part of the core design requirements' for the building, the document also outlines concerns over its suitability as a venue for full council meetings. It states that members have raised concerns over the safety and security of councillors due to the proximity of the public gallery to the councillors' seating area. The report highlighted that the council chamber previously used in the old Shire Hall headquarters had a first floor balcony that physically separated councillors and the public, for 'all but the most determined persons, [for example] those attempting to bring abseiling equipment into the building'. The council has refuted claims that the building is unused but has not disclosed exactly how many members of staff are working there. The note (pictured left) which was left on empty desks at Whitehall by Jacob Rees-Mogg (right) who has been campaigning for civil service's return to work and has recently started patrolling government departments to carry out headcounts Figures show that some departments are less than half full (pictured: Foreign and Commonwealth Office earlier this year) PM backs Jacob Rees-Mogg's drive to get civil servants back to their Whitehall desks Boris Johnson backed Jacob Rees-Mogg's drive to get civil servants back to their Whitehall desks - despite a Cabinet row erupting over the 'Dickensian' campaign. Mr Rees-Mogg, the Cabinet minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, is currently leading Government efforts to end home-working practices among officials after the Covid pandemic. In his determination to fill Whitehall offices again, Mr Rees-Mogg was revealed to have been conducting personal headcounts of officials in some Government departments. He has also left notices in offices for civil servants not at their desks, which read: 'Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.' Mr Rees-Mogg's notes have been branded 'supremely passive aggressive' and 'patronising' by critics. And his campaign to end work from home (WFH) for civil servants has also enraged some of his fellow Cabinet ministers. The Times reported that Mr Rees-Mogg gave a presentation to Cabinet last week, which included a league table highlighting the departments where the fewest staff had returned to work. According to the newspaper, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries voiced her objections to Mr Rees-Mogg's campaign and said that the focus should be on civil servants' productivity. She told him that his letter to government departments brought to mind 'images of burning tallow, rheumy eyes and Marley's ghost (from A Christmas Carol)'. Ms Dorries added: 'There's a whiff of something Dickensian about it. Why are we measuring bodies behind desks? Why aren't we measuring productivity?' Several other Cabinet ministers are also said to have reservations about the campaign to force civil servants back to their Whitehall desks. Mr Rees-Mogg wouldn't comment on the dispute, which was described as 'good natured' by one Government source. In reference to Cabinet confidentiality rules, Mr Rees-Mogg told PA: 'If it's leaks from Cabinet, I'll comment under the 30-year rule when we're all a little bit older.' Despite the concerns among other Cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister yesterday offered strong backing for Mr Rees-Mogg's efforts. Mr Johnson's official spokesman said Mr Rees-Mogg was seeking to 'do everything possible to get the civil service to return to the pre-pandemic level'. They added: 'That is what he is seeking to do. That is supported by the Cabinet Secretary (Simon Case) and obviously the Prime Minister.' Asked if the notes left on desks by Mr Rees-Mogg were helpful, the spokesman said the PM 'supports any initiative that encourages people to return to pre-pandemic working'. 'We are not talking about putting an end to flexible working, which continues to have a place in the modern workplace, we are talking about returning to pre-pandemic use of taxpayer-funded departmental buildings,' they continued. It has been suggested that the numbers will increase as 'virus levels continue to decline' but has not shared a timeline on how or when this would happen. Jake Berry, the Conservative MP and former minister told the Telegraph: 'There is little or no reason whatsoever that people working for Cambridgeshire County Council should not go back to work. 'We have seen Covid restrictions rolled back across the country and it beggars belief that the only place they haven't heard about this is in Cambridgeshire.' Steve Count, Cambridgeshire county councillor and leader of the conservatives, said the move was a 'politically motivated attack' on the building which was commissioned by the Tories under a former administration. He said: 'The purpose built New Shire Hall is a fantastic new asset, commissioned by the Conservative administration when they were in charge, which should be delivering over £40m of savings for the Taxpayers of Cambridgeshire. 'It's a shame that the new Liberal Democrat and Labour alliance are continuing to not occupy this excellent building and adding further unnecessary expense on to our hard pressed residents. 'Covid excuses are their thin disguise to what is essentially a politically motivated attack, that is costing our residents money.' However, council leader Lucy Nethsingha hit back at the claim which she branded 'disgraceful', insisting that council staff continued to work 'incredibly hard' despite working from home. She said: 'Not only has New Shire Hall been open for public meetings since May last year, but the comment from Conservative MP Jake Berry that 'people working for Cambridgeshire County Council should go back to work' is deeply offensive. 'Staff at Cambridgeshire County Council have worked incredibly hard over the past 3 years to support thousands of vulnerable people under extremely difficult circumstances. 'To have this comment from a Conservative MP shows just how out of touch they are with the phenomenal efforts that all those working in public services have put in during the pandemic. 'Our staff have worked above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic to keep people safe in their homes, they have struggled with home schooling while coping with ever changing government advice and guidance.' Ms Nethsingha also said it was 'inaccurate' to suggest the building was largely unused but did not comment on the impact of the council's use of social distancing and Covid guidelines on the building's occupancy. Newly appointed chief executive Stephen Moir answered critics in a tweet he put out yesterday. 'Reflecting upon issues of work, workplace and workforce. 'IMHO, work is what you do, let's not confuse or conflate this with where you do it from,' he wrote. 'Workplace can describe a range of settings & locations, some fixed, some variable, some virtual, so let's instead focus on outcomes…' Labour leader Elisa Meschini said 'plenty of staff' work in the building including the council's chief executive who is in every day. She added: 'I firmly believe that work is something you do - not a place you go. 'Like the leader of the council I find it totally offensive for anyone to suggest that our staff who include social workers, reablement staff, school welfare teams, highways maintenance crews, librarians, registrars have not been working flat out over the course of the pandemic. Pictured: Inside the council's brand new headquarters in Alconbury which is not being used at full capacity due to Covid rules Conservative MP Jake Berry (pictured) said there is 'little or no reason' people should not be back at work in Cambridgeshire Cambridgeshire County Council says New Shire Hall is just one of several buildings from which the council operates from 'I couldn't be prouder of them or our record during the pandemic and beyond and anyone who suggests this is not the case has no clue whatsoever about how local authorities serve local people day in and day out. 'Where people need to be in our buildings they are, and we will continue to support them working from where ever they can do this the most effectively.' A spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council said essential public services have been running throughout the pandemic from a 'range of workplaces and settings'. It said New Shire Hall was just one of multiple buildings that the council operates from and that many public facing services are operated from other sites. The spokesman added: 'The Government's Living with Covid plan does remove the restrictions at a national level. 'However Cambridgeshire has remained stubbornly high in respect of both positive case numbers and hospitalisation rates so our local Public Health professional advice has been, until late last week, to continue to apply social distancing and the use of face coverings in our Council owned premises. 'These measures do not and have not prevented reoccupation of our buildings, and as virus levels and hospitalisation rates have started to fall, we are planning for changes to this advice, but fully expect hybrid work to continue where this supports staff well-being, recruitment and retention and good outcomes for the people of Cambridgeshire.' The situation in Cambridgeshire reflects that of the Civil Service in London where many staff members continue to work from home despite the removal of Covid restrictions. Jacob Rees-Mogg recently started patrolling government departments to find out how many are still empty after lockdown restrictions lifted. And it emerged at the weekend that when he makes his unannounced visits, he leaves behind messages that are politely worded but whose meaning is clear. The country's most senior civil servant, Simon Case, had privately warned Johnson against forcing officials back to the office They state: 'Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.' They are signed 'with every good wish' and carry his name and title. It is understood Mr Rees-Mogg, in charge of civil service reform, left a number of the notes in his Cabinet Office department several days ago. Mr Rees-Mogg has written to Cabinet ministers calling on them to issue a clear message to staff about a 'rapid return to the office'. Downing Street said Boris Johnson supported Mr Rees-Mogg's efforts. 'What the minister is seeking to achieve is to do everything possible to get the civil service to return to the pre-pandemic level,' the Prime Minister's official spokesman said. 'That is what he is seeking to do. That is supported by the Cabinet Secretary and obviously the Prime Minister.' But the Guardian later reported that the country's most senior civil servant, Simon Case, had in fact privately warned Mr Johnson against forcing officials back to the office. The newspaper said at least four permanent secretaries were also understood to have voiced concerns about the Government's rhetoric on the matter. Dave Penman, the secretary general of the Civil service union, criticised Government's 'obsession' with returning to the office Asked if the notes left on desks by Mr Rees-Mogg were helpful, the PM's spokesman said Mr Johnson 'supports any initiative that encourages people to return to pre-pandemic working'. 'We are not talking about putting an end to flexible working, which continues to have a place in the modern workplace, we are talking about returning to pre-pandemic use of taxpayer-funded departmental buildings.' The Times reported that Ms Dorries' response was highly critical of Mr Rees-Mogg's approach. Mr Rees-Mogg presented figures to Cabinet last week showing that some Government departments were using as little as 25 per cent of office capacity in early April - the figure for Ms Dorries' Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was 43 per cent. WFH officials will be ordered back to desks if they're looking after children during office hours Civil servants will be forced back into the office if they are found to be looking after their children when they are supposedly working from home, it has been revealed. Staff at major government agencies have been warned against taking advantage of the new 'hybrid working' arrangements that allow them to spend only two or three days a week at their desks. Internal HR policies obtained by the Daily Mail make clear that working remotely cannot be used as a way to avoid paying for childcare or putting in fewer hours, and that employees' privileges can be removed if their performance is found to be suffering. While the number of staff at their desks in Whitehall has increased in recent weeks, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels despite the end of Covid curbs. The Department for Education had just 25 per cent of staff in the office in the week beginning April 4 – although officials said the school holidays meant it was not representative. Despite multiple pressures on the Home Office, including migrant crossings and processing visas for Ukrainian refugees, on average only 42 per cent of staff were at their workplace. The Foreign Office, a key department responding to Russia's aggression in Ukraine, saw just 31 per cent of staff in its King Charles Street building that week. And despite the cost of living crisis, the Department for Work and Pensions had just 27 per cent of its civil servants at their desks. Astonishingly, the figures could overestimate the numbers in the office as some departments recorded the figures by asking security staff to click people in – and then loosely adjusted the figures to account for lunch breaks. Other departments used data from pass readers. The figures suggest that a plea issued by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay three months ago for departments to return to full occupancy fell on deaf ears. Mr Rees-Mogg used a Mail on Sunday article to warn that officials may lose the London weighting on their pay or see their jobs moved elsewhere if they were not at their desks. 'Essentially, if people are not back in their office it will be fair to assume that the job does not need to be in London,' he said. Responding to the reports in The Guardian, a Government spokesperson said: 'We want to see office attendance across the civil service consistently back at normal, pre-pandemic levels. 'There is total agreement across Government on there being clear benefits from face-to-face, collaborative working and we know that this is particularly important for the learning and development of new members of staff. 'The minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency has written to departments to underline the importance of workplace attendance and request that they review their existing guidance on the minimum number of days staff work in the office.' Last week, union bosses accused ministers of being 'vindictive' and 'obsessed' with working from home. Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA civil service union, accused Jacob Rees-Mogg of being 'vindictive' and obsessed with ending flexible working after the minister demanded mandarins return to Westminster. Penman stressed that 'there is no rationale' for this approach, as 'ministers can't point to productivity losses' linked to increased hybrid working in the civil service. He also warned that, if the Cabinet insists 'on micro-managing the civil service' in this way, it will 'only deter good people from joining while simultaneously demotivating those already there'.
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