By Ian McConnell

SOMETIMES, it seems, the Prime Minister just cannot help himself when it comes to making ill-judged comments at the wrong moments.

His latest pronouncements over the weekend on the return of people to offices are among the latest examples of this blundering Boris Johnson bluster.

It is worth observing the Prime Minister’s often-perplexing pronouncements seem to do surprisingly little to hinder his popularity with the electorate south of the Border, and sometimes even appear to act in the opposite direction. We are, sadly, in a worrying time of populism. And it often appears Mr Johnson can say what he likes, with a lack of questioning from too many quarters.

That said, much of the loudest nonsense has been around Brexit, and in this context Mr Johnson has a section of the electorate only too happy to lap up all of that.

The Prime Minister would surely, however, have offended many with a peculiar take on remote working entirely at odds with the reality for millions of people who have turned their lives on their heads to ensure everything continues to function effectively for their employers amid the pandemic.

Employees have proved hugely adaptable, often putting in longer hours and using personal resources such as home broadband and their own technology. Surveys have shown greatly increased log-in times, and heavier workloads for employees amid the pandemic. Many employees will be wondering how they will fit in their daily commute if or when it returns.

Who knows if Mr Johnson’s personal home-working experience has been the same as this or not, but what is crystal clear is that he seems entirely detached from the busy realities of daily life for the UK’s army of remote workers.

We have had a sense of such detachment and misunderstanding on the Tories’ part throughout the pandemic – an indication of a perhaps ideologically driven impression that home working might somehow equate to skiving.

Mr Johnson might have seemed a bit jocular when making his latest remarks on home working at the Conservative Party spring conference on Saturday but his underlying view and message seemed dispiritingly clear.

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Asked whether there should be a special bank holiday when the pandemic subsided, the Prime Minister responded: “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.”

Everything with this statement seems wrong. The remote workers who have faced and overcome huge challenges to make everything go like clockwork will not recognise the Johnson perception of reality that “people have had quite a few days off”. Rather, many have lost much of their own time.

Remote working has been anything but a holiday, as the surveys of the likes of employees’ log-in times have shown. People’s days have become stretched early and late. It has been a far from easy situation. Millions of other people, including huge numbers not working in offices, have been furloughed but the overwhelming bulk would far rather have been working than have had time hanging heavy on them as they have worried about job insecurity. In all respects, the “quite a few days off” comment is utterly offensive.

Even more insulting is the Prime Minister’s comment that “it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office”. Really?

Home working where possible remains official UK Government advice, for good public health reasons. This is because we are in the middle of a pandemic, during which the UK has recorded an appalling death toll. In this regard, Mr Johnson’s weekend comments seem most unfortunate.

And this is not the first time we have seen dramatic over-hastiness from the UK Government when it has come to making loud noises about getting people back into offices.

Remember at the end of August last year – by which time you only had to look at other European countries to see the second wave of coronavirus was coming – Mr Johnson was declaring it was time for people to be heading back into offices?

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Given all that has happened since, you would have thought Mr Johnson might have learned lessons from last summer about timing.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, having spent some of last summer promoting his Eat Out to Help Out scheme, was at that time still insisting the UK Government’s furlough scheme would not be extended under any circumstances. He eventually had to extend it to this spring and then to September.

It is difficult to escape the impression the Tories have repeatedly underestimated the timescale involved in a pandemic, as well as the scale of support required.

And it has seemed that some of their pendulum-type behaviour when it has come to their handling of the pandemic has been dictated by their basic ideology.

There was talk from Tory ranks of an “addiction” to furlough in the weeks after the launch of the coronavirus job retention scheme in March last year.

And, to reiterate, Mr Johnson’s comments over the weekend do signal a worryingly out-of-touch view on home working.

International vaccine success has given us a way out of all of this.

The roll-out of the vaccine provides hope that we can get back to something resembling normality sooner rather than later.

However, we are still at a stage where large parts of the economy remain shut down.

And we remain at a dangerous point on the road.

A successful, rather than botched, reopening of those parts of the economy still closed down is crucial to businesses and the economy.

It is not that a return to offices is a bad idea in itself. However, as with everything right now, timing is everything.

Meanwhile, home working must not be viewed as something that promotes skiving. There have been signs from many companies that they might look at incorporating more home working where this is efficient. You would imagine there will be plenty of cases, as proven during the pandemic, where home working can boost productivity.

Mr Sunak has also been making noise about a return to offices.

Some of the advantages of office working he cites are fair enough – the points about young people learning from colleagues and ideas being generated from informal interaction are good ones.

Many people will, rightly, take the view that formal meetings are generally far less useful, and often a waste of time.

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However, there is again a huge timing problem with the intervention of Mr Sunak, who declared late last week that staff may “vote with their feet” and quit their jobs if they are not provided with an office by employers. It is premature to be focusing on a return to offices right now.

There is a great and widespread desire for a return to normality but no one wants to go back into another lockdown after we emerge from this one.

Getting things right from here is crucial. There is no place for impatience or doing things in the wrong order. And pushing ahead with something too soon would amount to incompetence, as well as being counter-productive.

There are roadmaps in place, north and south of the Border, for the reopening of “non-essential” retail, gyms, and the hospitality and broader tourism sectors.

International travel continues to look difficult but vaccine success offers some hope on this front.

Experience of this pandemic has shown infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths are a matter of utterly grim but fairly basic arithmetic relating to the amount of contact and where this occurs, although there remains debate over the specific points of greatest danger for transmission. Thankfully, the vaccine roll-out is a huge positive in terms of changing this arithmetic for good.

The Herald: Rishi Sunak. Picture: Dominic LipinskiRishi Sunak. Picture: Dominic Lipinski

Far more of the economy is currently open than many of those more opposed to coronavirus-related restrictions seem to realise. Manufacturing remains open, as does construction. Those parts of the services sector in which people can work remotely are in full swing, as is the public sector.

The priority when it is safe should of course be on the restart of sectors which have been closed. This is crucial to saving jobs and businesses, and supporting the economy, and living standards.

Those people working effectively from home should continue to do so for now to enable as much of the economy to reopen as possible. It would be foolish to prioritise going back into offices over enabling those people in sectors which have been closed to return to work.

It is easy to see many reasons why an eventual return to offices will, by and large, be a very good thing, for many people’s mental health as well as for mentoring of younger employees and the generation of ideas. It will also be crucial for city and town centres, and for the transport sector. Hopefully, individual workers will be allowed to work remotely where this is better for them and is effective for the business, but the notion that very few people are going to work in offices ever again is ridiculous.

That said, Messrs Johnson and Sunak have to realise the importance of doing things in the correct sequence, and prioritise appropriately.

Crucially, the focus must remain on minimising the death toll from the pandemic.

The rapid roll-out of vaccines offers an opportunity, all going well, for reopening of the likes of gyms, retail, and hospitality and tourism over coming weeks and months.

It makes complete sense, while this is going on, for people who can work from home to continue with their sterling remote efforts, and this will increase the chances of successful reopening without the need for a subsequent retreat.

Mr Johnson and his colleagues really need to cool their heels on their seemingly resurgent back to offices drive right now.