People should “get back to work” after Plan B rules were eased, the business secretary has said.
Kwasi Kwarteng extolled the benefits of office-based staff interacting directly as he called for a return to “some degree of normality”.
The comments came after the government this week dropped working from home guidance that was reintroduced late last year to try to combat the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
It resulted in city centres that were still recovering from earlier lockdowns again seeing reduced footfall during what is normally a key period for shopping and parties.
The measures were described by some as a “lockdown by stealth”.
Mr Kwarteng’s comments come after banks such as HSBC and Citigroup this week were among those leading the way in calling staff back to their desks in London.
Meanwhile, the UK boss of PwC said the accountancy firm was expecting a faster bounce back than the last time workers were encouraged to return following lockdowns.
The business secretary told LBC radio: “We should get back to work.
“We’ve got to get back to some degree of normality.
“People working in the office do get benefits from working with colleagues, being able to interact directly with them and I want to get back to a sense that the pandemic is turning from a pandemic into an endemic.
“I think the sooner we get back to the pre-COVID world the better in terms of workplace practices.”
Mr Kwarteng also said he was trying to increase the number of people coming into work in Whitehall, with around 50% of his department back behind their desks.
Earlier, he told Sky News: “I’ve said that people should start getting back to normal as soon as they can.”
However, ministers face some resistance from unions representing civil servants.
The public and commercial services (PCS) union has demanded consultation on any plans for a return to the workplace and maintains that “given the ongoing threat from COVID… it is safer for staff to work from home where they can”.
HSBC has said staff would be welcome back in its offices as part of a hybrid approach while Standard Chartered has told staff its London headquarters will be open from Monday.
Citi’s employees are “expected to be in the office at least three days per week”, according to an internal memo seen by news agency Reuters.
Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at PwC UK, said: “The number one question I’m being asked from our people is when can we get back to the office – they value time with colleagues, alongside the flexibility to work from home when helpful.
“After the last lockdown restrictions were lifted, it took us two months to get back to 80% capacity.
“We’re expecting a faster bounce back now – people know the drill – and this is great news for small businesses and city centres that rely on office workers.”
Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, said that after Omicron “cast a dark shadow over the Square Mile’s recovery”, signs were now “much more promising”.
Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin this week told Sky News that the lifting of COVID restrictions left him “breakdancing round the living room”.
But he cautioned that warnings about COVID had “put the frighteners on people” and that “having wound the public up… to too great an extent, it may be difficult to get back”.