PCS met with the HMPO Director General on 14 April to discuss plans requiring staff to return to work.
PCS has been engaging with the department over the urgent matter of staff returning to work in HMPO. As a result of PCS pressure, a pause in departmental plans was secured. However, this pause did not amount to a reduction in numbers coming in, just maintenance of numbers already required to come in, although the offices in Newport, Belfast and London remained closed.
Meeting the Director General
On 14 April an urgent dial in was convened with the Director General of HMPO and the Chief Operating Officer was also present. PCS's representatives made it clear that we believe the department is acting in haste and that members should not be called back into the office to complete non-urgent work.
The department are relying on the Public Health England guidance which states that if work cannot be competed at home then workers should attend their workplaces. This is even the advice in the case of non-essential work. Of course, members will be confused by this given the very strong and clear message that the government and Prime Minister have given about remaining at home during this lockdown period.
Our position as a union is that our employer should go further than the basic minimum and that the reality for ourselves, for our families and for our communities is that we are safest if we are at home in isolation. So we have demanded that members are only required to attend the office to complete critical work.
We firmly put our position to the Director General, indicating that we believed that in the current pandemic a responsible employer would place the welfare of their employees over the desire to keep on top of backlogs for standard passports. Members will be aware that we launched a petition to this effect and have already received over 900 signatories from within the HMPO stating that they believed that calling in staff to complete business as usual work was not appropriate at the current time.
PCS acknowledges the PHE guidelines, but we concur with the “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” message that whilst there are measures that can be put in place to try to minimise risk, the safest thing to do is isolate at home. This is backed by the numerous concerns that members have raised with us and the genuine fear that members have about returning to work.
Working from Home
At the meeting PCS was informed that there were problems with using the AMS passport system remotely via laptops from home. PCS believes that as a priority a fix should be sought for this. PCS also proposed that members should be issued laptops and temporarily redeployed onto work that could be completed from home, whether this be HMPO specific or from within the rest of the Home Office.
We see this as a reasonable compromise which would ensure that more members do not need to return to work but are able to contribute to the work of the wider Home Office. Unfortunately, this proposition was not acceded to.
Health and Safety
As it stands PCS has not seen any risk assessments for the offices where members have returned to work. Whilst we understand that measures are being implemented, we await these documents. Our pressure has also led to the retention of an outside organisation “Human Applications” who will be conducting inspections of the workplaces this week. PCS pointed out to management that we believed that these inspections and assessments should have been completed prior to members returning to work.
We have received agreement that there will not be any increase in staffing until these risk assessments have been scrutinised by PCS, and we are certain that the social distancing measures in offices are adequate and are able to be maintained. But any measures will be dependent on what happens in practice in each office. If members have any concerns around social distancing not being adhered to, about a lack of PPE, concerns over the cleanliness of offices, toilets, break areas or cleaning materials then please raise this with your local PCS reps who will collate feedback from members and raise this with management locally.
It's crucial PCS are supplied with accurate figures for the deployment of members in offices. These figures should include HMPO, Sopra Steria and any other employees in the buildings. Unfortunately to this point, managers have not been able to provide accurate figures to us.
Whilst our meeting was primarily about HMPO, PCS has also called for the Director General to commit to ensuring that risk assessments and safety inspections are also in place for UKVI staff in her command as well.
As the Covid pandemic continues to take lives up and down the country including some of our colleagues in the Home Office, serious questions need to be answered by the HMPO senior management. We believe that looking short term at potential increases to backlogs loses sight of the overarching duty to protect staff and communities. Senior managers risk being remembered for rushing to bring members back to work rather than allowing the pandemic to peak and the lockdown ease prior to staff returning.
If the thought of travelling to work and coming into an office where there are many people congregated in a closed environment is making you feel ill with anxiety and stress which is affecting your mental or physical health, then you should consider if you are well enough to attend work.
Obviously if you or a household member are displaying any signs of covid-19 like symptoms then you need to self-isolate for 14 days and this will not be counted towards your sickness record. As tests are not routinely carried out for people self-isolating, only generally if you’re hospitalised, it could be a case that you feel you’ve had symptoms but haven’t actually had covid-19. This may mean after this you could feel that you are developing symptoms later that requires you to self-isolate again for a further 14 days.
PCS continues to argue this case, to look for alternatives, but also to protect the Health and Safety of members who have returned to the office. We have further meetings scheduled with the Director General at which we will continue to argue that members are protected. As noted above members at the frontline will have first-hand experience of protection measures implemented and we need you to help your union by letting us know how these are working. Management need to act on each health and safety concern raised with them and take appropriate action. We repeat if any member feels they are in serious or imminent danger they should remove themselves away from that risk.
PCS continues to act as members' independent voice, arguing for your safety, please encourage colleagues to join and also get more involved.