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COVID-19: Chancellor makes blunt back-to-work message

Written by on 26 March 2021

Rishi Sunak is calling on Britain’s employers to end working from home and allow staff back in the office – or risk them voting with their feet and quitting. 

Looking beyond the pandemic, the chancellor says working in an office is crucial for young people to get to know colleagues and seek out mentors to help their career.

“I’m probably in the camp of saying that it’s good that people are in offices together,” he said, as he appealed to bosses to start investing and hiring when coronavirus lockdown rules are lifted.

An empty Regent Street in London Image: City centres have been turned into ghost towns as a result of COVID-19. File pic

He added: “I think you can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.”

Mr Sunak also warned bosses that those who shut their offices for good risk losing staff who “vote with their feet” and defect to rival employers offering them a desk at work.

His warning came after the government’s emergency COVID legislation was extended for six months by 484 votes to 76 in a Commons vote, with 35 Tory MPs and 21 Labour MPs rebelling.

The chancellor’s blunt back-to-work message is aimed to help kickstart the economy and rescue city centres that have become ghost towns devastated by months of lockdown.

Mr Sunak claims working from home is inferior to convening with colleagues in the workplace, which fosters “meetings that happen by chance” and “people riffing off each other”.

He said: “Imagine you’ve just left college or university – you start this job in a big company and you’re sitting at home on your own.

“How do you get to know your peers, how do you learn the culture of an organisation, how do you get those mentors, which are important for your career development?”

Mr Sunak’s plea to the UK’s employers came in a wide-ranging and candid interview ahead of the Conservative Party’s spring conference, published in The Daily Telegraph and the Sun.

He urged companies that have benefitted from the pandemic, collectively amassing cash reserves of more than £100bn, to embark on an investment and hiring spree to fuel the economic recovery.

“Look, now’s the time, guys, don’t sit on your hands,” he said. “If you’ve got the cash, invest it now, because we want you to do it now and help drive our recovery and that will create jobs in the process.”

Mr Sunak acknowledged that there should continue to be some extra flexibility for those who choose to do some working from home, but COVID should not be the death knell of offices.

Vowing to keep taxes “as low as possible”, he said he hoped to set out a new regime for alcohol duty by the end of the year – evening out disparities between duty levels on spirits, wine and beer.

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March 4: Sunak on tax threshold freeze

On his family life, he said that like many who have bought a pet during lockdown, he and his wife are considering getting a labrador – after lobbying from his two daughters who have become fans of Dilyn, the dog that belongs to Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie Symonds.

Talking about his mother, Mr Sunak claimed boosting women in the workplace is another priority.

The chancellor explained: “My mother is a small business woman. She ran her own pharmacy at some point – and I have two girls, so this is something that’s important to me in particular.”

He said he wanted to think about “what is the next step” and it was important to recognise that women have been “disproportionately dealing with difficulties around kids, school, childcare, career” during the past year.

His father, a former GP, has joined the army of retired health workers who have enlisted as COVID vaccinators in recent months.

“My dad’s one of these people who have gone back and he’s jabbing away, and he’s loving it,” Mr Sunak said. “He’s saying the vibe, the camaraderie amongst the people that he’s working with and volunteering with is fantastic.

“They are all involved in something really special.

“I’ve seen it when I’ve been out visiting centres and I say to the people there, that they will remember that for the rest of their lives, that they were part of this amazing, amazing effort.”

Rishi Sunak preparing his spending review speech Image: Mr Sunak has carefully cultivated his image while chancellor

Asked about his pin-up status and being called “Dishy Rishi”, the 40-year-old said the nickname was “lovely and flattering”, but claimed his wife “remains ever puzzled by it”.

And dismissing suggestions that the rest of the cabinet may be jealous of his sex symbol status, he said: “They’re a good-looking bunch, this cabinet!”

But the chancellor was unapologetic about his personal wealth, declaring: “I am who I am, but remember, think back where I came from.”

HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/BRITAIN-BUDGET  Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak presents the budget box in London  Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak holds the budget box outside Downing Street in London, Britain, March 3, 2021. REUTERS/John Sibley TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY Image: The chancellor delivered a budget earlier this month

Mr Sunak said his Indian grandparents migrated to Britain “from very different circumstances” in East Africa, and said his parents had sacrificed an enormous amount to fund his education at top public school Winchester College.

And on his past career at investment bank Goldman Sachs and a major hedge fund, he said: “I’ve been really fortunate to love, professionally, doing something that also means if you’re good at it, you earn good money. I don’t think that’s something to be embarrassed about.

“I think that’s something we should celebrate for everyone. What our job is, though, is to make sure as many people as possible have access to all those opportunities, and as much as we can possibly give everyone that shot at doing what they want to do.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak during a visit to Teesport in Middlesbrough. Picture date: Thursday March 4, 2021. Image: Mr Sunak and the prime minister at Teesport earlier this month

As MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire, Mr Sunak also reaffirmed his commitment to levelling up the North and Midlands, saying: “I have a northern constituency, and I’m a northern chancellor.

“What I see when I’m out and about and I’m campaigning in places across County Durham and the Tees Valley or new constituencies that we won for the first time in a long time that informs my politics and informs me doing this job.”

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