New government Covid-19 rules: Work from home if you can

24 Sep 2020

New government Covid-19 rules state office workers who can work effectively from home should do so. PCS has called on Home Office to allow any member of staff who can work from home to be allowed to do so.

The government's original instruction to force civil servants into workplaces using public transport and mixing in large numbers indoors was an irresponsible move especially where people could work from home. This has contributed to the nationwide increase in Covid-19 cases. Over recent weeks we’ve seen an expediential rise in the number of cases of Home Office staff coming into workplaces and testing positive. This has occurred at many locations.

PCS has written to the Home Office second permanent secretary setting out the following demands:

  1. An immediate halt of phase 3 and 4 of the Home Office return to work RTW) plans. No further sign off for directorates to increase numbers of staff coming into workplaces
  2. If staff can work from home, they should be instructed to do so (unless for personal reasons where working from home would pose more of a health risk as per Phase 2 of the RTW Protocol).
  3. Move back to phases 1 and 2 of the Home Office RTW Protocol where only agreed critical work that can’t be performed at home is undertaken in workplaces. Accordingly, we expect to see an immediate reduction in numbers coming in offices and other work locations.
  4. Anyone who has concerns about being in a workplace to be allowed to work from home and appropriate equipment and work provided. No-one should be coerced in to travelling to a workplace if they have safety concerns.
  5. All extremely vulnerable and vulnerable civil servants, and those who look after relatives in these categories, should be allowed to home work. If this is not possible then they should be put on special leave with pay. They should not be asked to be in the workplace.

The joint statement from the Permanent Secretary and second Permanent Secretary to staff on Tuesday 22 September was both disappointing and alarming in equal measure. Firstly they have misinterpreted the new government advice and secondly have stated their intention to plough ahead with increasing staff numbers into offices under phase 3 and 4 of Home Office RTW protocols. This is both irresponsible and poses increased dangers to employees and the wider public. 

The new government advice states:

"To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so. Public sector employees working in essential services, including educational settings, should continue to go into work where necessary. Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work. The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk."

The Home Office message to staff states:

“changing the guidance to ask people to work from home where they can, where their job does not involve the delivery of public services.”

The government advice refers to working from offices on delivery of ‘essential services’ not simply ‘public services’. The Home Office message is a misinterpretation of the advice and is misleading. It is designed to force staff into offices even when this is not necessary. Where staff can work from home they should do so irrespective of whether that is public sector or private sector work.

The Home Office message continued:

"We will need to continue to implement our phased return to our workplaces to enable the Department to deliver the very best services for citizens."

At a time where Covid-19 infection is spreading exponentially and the government have been forced to introduce new measures PCS believe it is both dangerous and irresponsible of the Home Office to look to increase numbers of staff coming into offices at this time and have called for an immediate halt to these plans.

In line with government advice and on safety grounds we advise members to work from home where they can and we expect the Home Office to facilitate this.

In light of the increased risks of spreading and contracting the coronavirus where staff can work from home they should continue to do so. If you are now being told to come in under phases 3 and 4 of the Home Office RTW Protocol and feel unsafe going into work you should request to continue with your current arrangements of working from home. Write to your line manager citing government advice to say you want to work from home. All reasonable requests should be granted.

In the event that your line manager refuses to allow you to work from home when you can demonstrate this is possible Home Office employees should complete the employer’s incident report form that can be found here and when submitting the incident form also copy in the second permanent secretary and ask that they afford you an appeal against the decision to stop you working from home.

The spreading and contraction of COVID-19 poses a serious and imminent threat to public health.

Legislative protection

EU legislation provides health and safety protection to workers. Specifically, Article 8(4) of the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC provides:

“Workers who, in the event of serious, imminent and unavoidable danger, leave their workstation and/or a dangerous area may not be placed at any disadvantage because of their action and must be protected against any harmful and unjustified consequences, in accordance with national laws and/or practices.”

This protection has been enacted into UK law by Sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA) which make it unlawful for an employer to dismiss someone, select them for redundancy or subject them to any other detriment in certain circumstances.

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