Covid-19: Letter to Permanent Secretary - PCS calls for an immediate halt to HMPO staff being called back into work

14 Apr 2020

Mike Jones, PCS Home Office group secretary, emailed Matthew Rycroft on 11 April.  The text of the email is below:

Dear Matthew

PCS call for an immediate halt to HMPO staff being called back into work

As you will hopefully be aware PCS raised our concerns with the cabinet office last Thursday over HMPO attempts to bring hundreds of HMPO staff into offices unnecessarily.

We’ve received the following response this morning from Mervyn Thomas:

Please see the response below regarding the HMPO issue you raised on Thursday with the CDL:

  • CDL’s team and the Home Secretary’s team have been in communication. Cabinet Office officials have passed on the PCS concerns. 
  • Home Office have confirmed that Her Majesty’s Passport Office is fully adhering to Public Health advice across all offices and adopting social distancing measures to keep both its staff and customers safe.
  • It continues to operate at substantially restricted staffing levels with a significant number of people working from home where possible and staff are prioritising emergency cases. Guidance is also available for people who are travelling into work.
  • If there are specific safety concerns, Cabinet Office and Home Office officials stand ready to discuss them and address as appropriate.

In line with the last bullet point we call on the Home Office to call an immediate halt to bringing any staff whether that be HMPO employees, agency staff or Sopra Steria staff into the office next week to deal with routine work such as processing passports or marriage certificates etc.

Only a skeleton staff with all safety protections and measures put in place first should be expected to come into offices. This should be tens of people across the whole estate and with full PPE provided and only to deal with genuinely critical work. This should not be hundreds and no one should be expected to be doing routine work from within offices. We understand there were only around 100 compassionate cases processed last week.

A halt to bringing only the bare minimum staff into offices next week will allow for discussions to take place between PCS and Home Office officials who have the authority to make decisions so all safety concerns can be addressed.

In response to the wider points from the cabinet office around social distancing and adhering to public health advice I would like to set out some observations, in the hope you will get some grasp of your staff’s concerns.

Firstly the message that our members have been getting from government daily is “Stay at home, save lives. If you go out you can spread it. People will die". This is a clear and unambiguous message. Travelling to work and being amongst people even with social distancing puts PCS members and others more at risk than if they stayed at home. I hope we can all agreed on this as a starting point?

Therefore social distancing in offices is in no way as safe as people remaining at home. It is therefore incomprehensible to PCS that Home Office/HMPO would put their staff at extra risk running a service processing routine passports, marriage certificates etc. when it is not critical. By staff being in the office in greater numbers puts members at greater risk of contracting or spreading the Coronavirus and our members are understandably extremely worried and anxious.

PCS welcome efforts made by the Home Office to enable around 22,000 staff to work from home and we want to work with the Home Office in expanding this further.

PCS have made our position clear to the Home Office:

  • Staff should be provided the equipment, resources and technology to work from home.
  • Anyone who's role can't be done from home should be put on special paid leave while the Home Office look for appropriate work they can do from home
  • Stop undertaking routine work in offices. Only critical work to be carried out from an office and agreement with PCS as to what this critical work is and how many staff would be required to do this
  • If anyone is expected to undertake critical work in an office or at a port then this should be strictly voluntary. The number of staff in the office at any one time should be limited as far as possible and all safety precautions put in place before anyone is expected to come into a workplace. Risk assessments and safe working practices should be agreed with PCS and be in place before anyone is expected to attend a workplace. Risk assessments should include assessing individuals journey's to and from work.

Members from HMPO Glasgow have already been assigned to DWP work. There was a lack of consultation with PCS prior to this deployment. We also have real issues that staff were told to come into the office to do this work with no choice. PCS are happy to work with the Home Office on deploying staff onto other government departments critical work but every avenue must be explored to allow staff to do this from home and where this is absolutely not possible then it should be on a strictly voluntary basis.

I’ve also had calls and messages from contacts who work for Diligenta who share the building with the passport office in 101 Old Hall Street in Liverpool. They’ve also been dismayed at HMPO’s refusal to provide PPE to staff including gloves and masks. They are concerned about sharing lifts and lobbies where HMPO staff are passing through and touching things. One of my contacts in Diligenta works in the post room and has been provided with full PPE including, goggles, gloves and masks, yet HMPO colleagues are and continue to be expected to collect parcels and packages with no protection at all. This begs the question why are a private company taking the health and safety of their employees   more seriously than a government department?  

As you might expect PCS have been contacted by hundreds of members in real fear for their safety and the welfare of their families and they find it very difficult to understand why their employer is not listening and is still insistent on sending them in to offices to do routine work.

This anxiety and anguish is replicated amongst staff and their families across HMPO and whilst our members understand and support the department in delivering essential services at this time of national crisis. They find it extremely difficult to understand why at a time when we are seeing the highest fatality rate in Europe in this country their employer considers this a time to take what are clearly wholly unnecessary risks with their health and wellbeing.

Below is just one message of many that our reps are receiving daily from hundreds of concerned members. The email comes from the wife of a member which she sent directly to our General Secretary:

 Dear Mr Serwotka

I am extremely concerned my husband who works for Passport Office has been told to return to work. I fear this is putting his life at risk and possibly mine and our family. 

I was pleased to read the BBC article about your recent meeting about this and urge you to do all you can to reverse this decision.  Lives are at risk and people do not need to be in offices 2 metres apart in rooms with windows that don't open handling papers and files.   The Home Office clearly dont care.

Please please save lives and do everything you can to get this decision changed, i beg you.  

Please just take a minute to read this message again and let it sink in. This is the pain and anguish you are putting members and their families through.

We look forward to your swift response on this urgent and serious matter.

Finally, PCS are still awaiting a response to our letter dated the 8th April in relation to comments made by Rupert Shute, Home Office deputy scientific advisor at a HMPO staff conference call. We would welcome a response at your earliest opportunity.

Yours Sincerely,

Mike Jones

PCS Home Office Group Secretary


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