COVID 19: School closures and defining key workers

23 Mar 2020

Following the closures of schools, new guidance has been published 

We have previously distributed advice in relation to self-isolation, working from home and special leave.  However, Friday saw a significant escalation in the government’s response with the announcement of the shut down in schools.

Key Worker

The announcement included the notification that schools would remain open only for key workers – people who were essential to the running of the country.  As the message from Government was not entirely clear many of us were waiting Friday for the notification of whether this included us.  Then a message was circulated from the head of HR after 4.30pm on Friday indicating that it was up to us individually to identify whether we thought we were in essential roles!

Obviously, there are roles at the border, or national security where this is a little clearer (although there are some areas in Border Force that really are not critical that management have decided people should be in at work when in reality they really don’t need to – this also applies to other areas of the Home Office. PCS will be questioning this with the Home Office), but it is highly unusual that rather than tell us whether they think our role is in the Government key worker definition they want us to self-identify.  Long-worked upon business continuity plans seem have fallen at the first hurdle.  The Prime Minister reinforced the message on Sunday, saying that key worker status is only for those who are critical to the running of country, and that this should be looked at closely.

The belated message also failed to address the fact that many schools required advanced notification, that very afternoon.  All in all, some very confusing messaging that is not helping members plan in these difficult times.

PCS believes that the purpose of the shutdown is to minimise social interaction and contact.  Therefore, as many children should be kept at home as possible, and the places should be reserved for those in essential roles, such as healthcare, food distribution etc.

New Guidance

It goes without saying that having children off school or nursery is going to place serious restrictions on what members are able to do.  New Guidance was published on Friday and this sets out what steps should be followed.  Of course, all previous guidance about members in at risk categories or who are self-isolating should continue to be followed.

  • Members should consider whether there are alternative childcare arrangements that can be put in place.  Even if there are, it is acknowledged that this may take some time to put in place so some special leave may be appropriately given.
  • If you can work from home, then this should be done.  Flexibility in working hours and arrangements may be required given childcare requirements.  PCS expects pragmatism around performance monitoring during this time as well.  The Department acknowledges that completing any work from home is better than being completely off.
  • If your work cannot be completed at home, your manager should consider reallocating you work that can be completed at home or transferring you to a post that can be completed at home.
  • If this is not an option, then paid special leave should be granted in order to care for your children.
  • At this stage there is no restriction on the amount of paid special leave, however members should expect to keep in touch with the office and that it will be reviewed regularly to consider potential alternatives.

The Guidance prioritises public health, the welfare of managers and their families and pragmatism.  We welcome this approach; however, we are concerned that there continues to be mention of limits of 10 days for paid special leave when in further extended periods can be granted at Grade 7 level.  In reality it is highly likely that if the staged process above is followed and there are no alternatives then longer periods will have to be granted.

Conclusions

The country is braced for measures we have never experienced in our life-times.  Many of us will know friends and family who have been laid off or put on unpaid leave – these are going to be tough times.  Our employer is putting in place some pragmatic guidance in order to ensure we continue to be paid even when we are unable to attend work.  Unfortunately, we have had reports of some over-enthusiastic managers making judgements about members’ health or prying into their living arrangements.  The new guidance should be followed, and we ask that members experiencing problems get in touch with their local reps as soon as possible, or failing that with then group office at homeofficegroup@pcs.org.uk.

PCS Union continues to consult with the employer over guidance and make demands for our treatment during this tough time.   PCS is the independent voice of our members in advocating for our rights and safety during this period – there has never been a more important time to be a member of the union.

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