Civil service head: ‘We will have to adapt the way we work’

Sir Mark Sedwill says departments will be given advice on working arrangements

The cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, has told civil servants to “look after each other” as they prepare for a monumental government effort to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, while also widely adopting new ways of working.

The cab sec – who is also head of the civil service – said officials should be following government guidance telling people to stay at home if they or someone in their household develops Covid-19 symptoms, to reduce unnecessary social contact and to “maintain the highest possible personal hygiene”.

His memo, delivered via email on Monday night, came after the prime minister held the first of the government’s new daily press conferences yesterday to update the public on its efforts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. He was accompanied by government chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who set out the new “social distancing” measures.

“Many, if not most, of your questions will have been answered by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser,” the cab sec said. Sedwill advised officials to read the transcript of yesterday’s press conference, when Boris Johnson also said people should begin working from home “where they possibly can”.

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Sedwill wrote: “Over the coming months, the civil service, like every organisation, will have to adapt the way we work. This means following the official advice while managing higher than average levels of absence.

“We are a large and diverse organisation and some of you will already work in flexible ways. In all cases, you should take sensible measures and discuss working arrangements, including working from home, within your team/department. We will need to divert resources to this campaign and every department has extensive plans in place, including the working patterns of staff in frontline roles, to ensure that we can continue to deliver public services.”

The message was the latest in what looks likely to become a series of regular updates from the cab sec to officials.

“I understand that many of you will be concerned about the steps you should take to protect yourself and your families. Your wellbeing remains an absolute priority and we will continue to keep you informed,” he said, adding that individual departments would be providing specific advice to their employees on working arrangements.

His last memo, sent two weeks ago, instructed civil servants to “set an example” to other citizens by remaining calm and continuing to go to work – in line with the government’s guidance at the time.

“As you will have seen from the news, we should continue to work as normal, while following official guidance and taking a measured, practical approach to limit the spread of the virus and minimise the risk of infection,” his message on 3 March said.

Yesterday’s message added: “We have an extremely important role in not only helping to delay this virus and supporting those affected, but also continuing to provide the services that our citizens rely on every day.

“Together, I am confident that the civil service will rise to the challenge. Look after yourselves and each other.”


Sam Trendall

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