Home Office Return To Workplaces And Other Issues- PCS Response And Advice

10 Nov 2020

An update for members around COVID-19 arrangements in Home Office workplaces and H&S advice for members.

Current Home Office position

Following the Government’s decision to enact a second national lockdown from 5 November 2020, the Home Office published an updated version of its Covid19 response policy alongside an amended version of the associated FAQs.

PCS has engaged fully with the employer over the development of their policy response with a view to ensuring that a safety-first approach is adopted, minimising risks and providing maximum support to our members. PCS have also been clear that Home Office guidance should set out any differences in nation approaches so staff are clear as to what applies to them.

Despite the government’s stated position that ‘if you can work effectively from home you should do so’, the Home Office has chosen to maintain its current Return To Work policy, which by way of reminder is as follows:        

The Home Office has set out 4 phases of returnees:

Phase 1 – Critical Roles (frontline roles which are essential and cannot be undertaken from home – e.g. frontline BF or IE work and HMPO where the technology is not in place for people to work from home. Critical work in other areas)

Phase 2 – Priority Wellbeing

Phase 3 – Enhanced Productivity

Phase 4 – Improved Collaboration.

Members covered by the Phase 1 definition have been attending the workplace throughout most of the pandemic. Phase 2 covers a small amount of colleagues who for personal/health reasons have specifically requested a return to the workplace.

Phases 3 and 4 includes colleagues whose attendance at the workplace is not deemed critical, but who have since late summer been required by their managers to return to the office in some form (full time/part time/part of a rota) to undertake work which they were previously performing at home to improve the ‘productivity and collaboration’ of their particular units.

Directorates have now received details of the cap on returning worker numbers that they must not exceed, broken down by workplace location. These have been made available to PCS Branches who play a vital role engaging with SRM (senior responsible managers], BRM (building responsible managers) and designated local business group managers. Jobholders and their manager will be required to consider any potential return to the workplace utilising the appropriate Toolkits.

PCS has responded to the Home Office’s decision to continue their Return To Work policy by writing again to the permanent secretaries (6 November 2020) calling for the immediate pause of Phases 3 and 4 and any members who have been required to attend work under these Phases are once again instructed to work from home with the support of the employer. We believe that this will support the national effort to reduce the spread of Coronavirus and is supported by the Government’s headline position outlined earlier in this Briefing.

Home Office members attending the workplace

As above PCS nationally and at branch level all over the country continue to support all of our members who have attended the workplace during the pandemic to deliver the critical roles that can only be performed from those workplaces. PCS is clear that the safety of workers is paramount. 

Sadly, there has been a recent rise in the number of confirmed Covid19 cases in our workplaces. This is, of course, of significant concern to us as a union. We are pushing relentlessly for appropriate improvements to the layout of our workplaces, the setting of appropriate maximum office occupancy levels, adjustments as appropriate to workplace attendance patterns as well as the provisions of enhanced cleaning levels and other control measures (such as screens).

Many improvements have only been introduced from PCS pressure. However while the virus continues to spread we’ve challenged the Home Office position that all workplaces are COVID-secure. We’ve called for Home Office to stop using this misleading term and instead use ‘COVID-adapted workplaces’ in communications.  

PCS is continuing to work with the Home Office to ensure that workplaces are made as safe as possible for workers required to attend them. Location Risk Assessments for individual workplaces have been published. PCS Branch Health & Safety representatives will continue to review these Risk Assessments, undertake workplace inspections and will continue to identify any concerns as they arise.

Members are our eyes and ears on the ground – if you identify any issues, problems or working practices that call into question the safety of your workplace please contact your local PCS representatives.

Changes to the Home Office Position on staff working from home/returning to the workplace

As part of its policy announcement last week, the Home Office announced changes to its Policy relating to staff suffering from health conditions which render them particularly vulnerable to the effects of Coronavirus.

These changes are as follows:

The Clinically Extremely Vulnerable Group

This group may include:

  • have had an organ transplant
  • are having chemotherapy or antibody treatment for cancer, including immunotherapy
  • are having an intense course of radiotherapy (radical radiotherapy) for lung cancer
  • are having targeted cancer treatments that can affect the immune system (such as protein kinase inhibitors or PARP inhibitors)
  • have blood or bone marrow cancer (such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma)
  • have had a bone marrow or stem cell transplant in the past 6 months, or are still taking immunosuppressant medicine
  • have been told by a doctor they have a severe lung condition (such as cystic fibrosis, severe asthma or severe COPD)
  • have a condition that means they have a very high risk of getting infections (such as SCID or sickle cell)
  • are taking medicine that makes them much more likely to get infections (such as high doses of steroids or immunosuppressant medicine)
  • have a serious heart condition and are pregnant.

Any members who falls within this cohort (you should have received a specific letter from the NHS) should not attend the workplace for at least the duration of this second lockdown. Members affected should work from home and if that’s not possible then paid special leave will apply.

Any member who has someone in their household who is clinically extremely vulnerable should wherever possible, work from home, but in a change from previous Home Office Policy, can now be required to return to the workplace if managers deem it necessary. PCS has argued against this change and we fundamentally disagree with this new policy position.

The Clinically Vulnerable Group

This group may include:

  • are 70 or older
  • have a lung condition that's not severe (such as asthma, COPD, emphysema or bronchitis)
  • have heart disease (such as heart failure)
  • have diabetes
  • have chronic kidney disease
  • have liver disease (such as hepatitis)
  • have a condition affecting the brain or nerves (such as Parkinson's disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy)
  • have a condition that means they have a high risk of getting infections
  • are taking medicine that can affect the immune system (such as low doses of steroids)
  • are very obese (a BMI of 40 or above)
  • are pregnant – see advice about pregnancy and coronavirus.

Many members suffering from one of these conditions (or who has someone in their household who suffers from one of these conditions) have already return to their workplaces but previously, those of us who continue to have concerns around the safety of workplaces were able to opt to work from home if their current role allowed it or to have work that can be done from home provided by the Home Office.

Again, in a change of policy, members in this cohort can now be required to return to the workplace if their business area deems their presence essential for business performance.

PCS, again, disagrees this new stance. We believe that this is not the time for policy changes which will have the effect of increasing the presence of vulnerable colleagues and those with extremely vulnerable family members in the workplace. The country is in the middle of a second lockdown and a second spike in infections – workplace attendance and travel should be at a minimum for the time being.

Our objections have been included in the letter to the Permanent Secretaries referred to above.           

Members covered by the cohorts above and those required to return under Phases 3 and 4 (above) will receive contact from managers to discuss any potential return. Some of our members are very keen to return to the workplace but others, rightly, have significant concerns around their own, and their loved ones, health.

Advice

All members returning to the workplace should take part in a one-to-one discussion with their manager using the new enhanced process and revised Toolkit. The Toolkit (which includes and Individual Risk Assessment known as a CIRI) provides the framework for the discussion. If members require any specific additional support, they are advised to contact their local branch representative. PCS has requested that trade union reps be allowed at these meetings.

Stress risk assessments should also be carried out where a member requests this.

If your job role has been identified as requiring attendance at the workplace, you will be asked to have a one to one discussion with your manager. The CIRI must be used with the agreed outcome of the discussion recorded. PCS has agreed that members should engage with the one to one process and it is important that the viability of doing all, or part, of your job role at home is fully explored.

Managers should treat members concerns sensitively and managers should not be put under pressure to force staff into the workplace of they feel it’s appropriate for staff to be at home, especially with infection rates still on the increase. Managers should contact their local PCS representatives if they come under pressure from above.

Other Covid19 issues  

PCS has contributed significantly at a national level in discussions around the provision of PPE and screens, the Directorate Safe Systems of Work and the Coronavirus Hub Frequently Asked Questions which can be found on Horizon and which cover amongst other issues, Special Leave, Sick Leave and Annual Leave. We continue to have an input into the revisions of these documents.

We’ve continued to lobby for the PCS 5 tests to ensure a completely safe environment for the return to the workplace to be met and fully addressed in this Protocol.

These tests are as follows:

  1. No wider return until communities are safe
  2. Workplaces must only be for essential work
  3. Workplaces must be safe places
  4. Staff must be individually assessed
  5. Outbreaks must be controlled.

PCS branch officials are aware of these protocols, so if there are any concerns and queries please direct them to your local Branch in the first instance  

The Home Office has confirmed that wherever practicable it will seek to maintain the 2m gap as its social distancing norm. PCS has lobbied hard for this measure. Sadly, daily infection and death rates from the pandemic remain significant and we continue to argue that as many control measures (such as the 2m social distancing gap) as possible should remain in place to mitigate against the transmission of the virus. It was only after months of lobbying by PCS that Home Office conceded to staff being allowed to wear coverings and the installation of screens.   

PCS has also had significant input into the Covid Workplace Outbreak Guidance which can be accessed on the Horizon Coronavirus Hub pages. The guidance sets out the processes to be followed following a confirmed positive Covid19 case in the workplace. It references cleaning processes as well the NHS definition of a ‘close contact’.

To clarify, this definition is as follows:

Anyone who has been within 1m of the infected person.

Anyone who has been within 2m of the infected person for more than 15 minutes.

Anyone who has shared a vehicle with the infected person.

If anyone is identified by mangers or by the NHS as a close contact they must self-isolate for 14 days. If they have a negative Covid19 test in the meantime they must still isolate for the full 14 day period. 

Advice

If you are concerned about your safety and measures in place in your workplace around the spread of the virus you should speak with your line manager. If you feel your workplace is not safe and you are in serious or imminent danger you are covered by section 44 legislation and should suffer no detriment by removing yourself from this danger. Please read PCS opinion here Can employees refuse to attend the workplace?

 

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