Civil servants could face deadlines to return to the office as ministers prepare a fresh push this week.
Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, has already told Whitehall departments to get as many staff back to their desks as Covid rules allow.
As government concern about the pandemic fades, ministers are considering setting targets to end working from home. An announcement is expected this week.
Unions warned that imposing quotas would “make no sense” and waste time on rotas because desk space had been cut to save money. The unions reacted furiously last week when ministers at the Conservative conference disparaged civil servants for homeworking.
Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, which is responsible for protecting public health, expressed a note of caution yesterday. She said: “If everybody returned immediately to work without due consideration, then I think it’s likely we would see more cases over a short period of time, depending on whether they were wearing face coverings, whether they were taking appropriate precautions.”
Over the summer Boris Johnson was cautious about ordering people back to their desks because he feared a repeat of last summer’s abrupt U-turn as cases rose. But with ministers expecting infection rates to remain stable for the next few months, he appears confident enough to strike a harder line.
He used his speech at the Conservative Party conference to say: “We will and must see people back in the office.” He insisted that “a productive workforce needs that spur that only comes with face-to-face meetings and water-cooler gossip”.
This week ministers are expected to insist that more civil servants return to the office. They are debating whether to set specific targets or simply press mandarins to do more.
Case recently called a face-to-face meeting with the permanent secretaries of departments to tell them to go faster in getting staff back to their desks. Over the summer many departments operated with about a quarter of staff present, with many workers in the office only two days a week.
Current guidance does not require social distancing but suggests measures such as screens and frequent cleaning and urges staff not to come in if they are ill. The source said that Case expected as many people as possible to be in the office while complying with the rules.
MPs made a series of jibes during the party conference about civil servants “woke-ing from home”.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents civil servants, said: “Many areas of Whitehall are down to very low desk numbers because of pre-pandemic cost-cutting. In the Cabinet Office they only have three desks for every ten staff and ministers are happy to bank the savings but then criticise civil servants for not being in. Quotas make no sense because they will create huge logistical challenges for no good reason, waste a lot of time and get in the way of effective working. If the government go down this route it will be very damaging.”
Oliver Dowden, the Tory chairman, told a fringe event that people wanted the government to lead by example, taking aim at his former top official in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Sarah Healey said last month that working from home was a “very, very, good thing” that allowed more efficient use of her time. “I have a Peloton and I can just get on my bike whenever I have a teeny bit of time. That has been a huge benefit to my wellbeing,” she said. Dowden said: “People need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks.”