Return to workplaces plans – PCS letter to Home Office

07 Sep 2020

PCS has written to the Permanent Secretary and Second Permanent Secretary of the Home Office in response to government plans to get 80% of civil servants back into workplaces.

Sent Via Email to Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary and Shona Dunnn, Second Permanent Secretary

Dear Matthew and Shona,

Return to Workplaces plans

We are writing this open letter on behalf of the PCS union Home Office group.

The union has been informed that Permanent Secretaries have been told by the government to greatly increase the number of staff members in the workplace.

PCS understands that government has instructed departments which have not staffed up offices to the so-called Covid safe limits must now seek to do so. This must be done in a supposedly COVID-secure way.

Moreover, without justification or necessity, departments are being strongly encouraged to use staff rota systems to get more staff into the workplace over the week with our understanding being that an arbitrary target of 80% of staff to attend their usual workplace each week by the end of September.

The union has been told that the Prime Minister has asked to see departmental return to the workplace figures on a weekly basis.  We are assured that departments have been told that they must engage with the unions on this matter.

It is without dispute that the government throughout the pandemic have made serious mistakes that has led to unnecessary deaths and greater spread of the Covid-19.

PCS believe that this further rash decision from the government using civil servants as guinea pigs for a return to offices could have serious consequences. The instruction appears more political posturing to assuage various newspapers and commentators rather than one that is based on public health advice or operational necessity.

Throughout the pandemic PCS have clearly set out demands around safety measures and protective equipment. While much has been acted on there have been frustrations that a number of our proposals were ignored such as the use of face coverings and screens that eventually had to be implemented.

The Home Office have in the main acted in a reasonable and responsible manner. Our concerns with the actions of the passport office and some instances in Border Force are well documented. Many of our members working in critical roles, have had to do this from the workplace, throughout the pandemic.  We are concerned that these members have reported suffering shortages of PPE, had to fight for safe distances to be maintained and in many cases have relied on PCS to force Home Office to take protective measures, such as screens, often some considerable time after other industries implemented these measures to protect their staff.

We again call on the Home Office to ensure staff are being tested before coming into workplaces and take further precautionary measures such as introducing temperature tests before staff enter premises to avoid the possible spread of the virus. We welcome this has been introduced in some areas but this needs to be throughout the Home Office estate.

Further, over 50% of staff are currently working well from home. We see no reason for this to drastically change now. Where staff want to stay working from home they should be allowed to. PCS would ask for clarification regarding the work that can only be completed in the workplace following an “80%” return of staff.

If these latest government proposals are followed through, we could see devastating consequences putting staff at risk and lead to further unnecessary outbreaks of Covid-19 setting back the recovery further. You will be aware of recent positive case of Covid-19 in Freeman’s Reach, Durham, and more widely the rising ‘R’ number in communities. PCS are therefore seeking the following assurances:     

  1. We seek an immediate meeting with yourself to discuss any change of direction concerning the return to the workplace;
  2. Weekly meetings with senior managers are already taking place and we would want to see these continue. However, we also want a commitment for proper consultation on this matter will also take place with the union/safety reps in each building or any sub division of the department as deemed relevant;
  3. We have been provided data recently but we ask should there have been any changes that the department provide as a matter of urgency the following information (a) the Covid secure occupancy limit for each building (b) the current staffing levels in each building (c) current risk assessment for each building;
  4. The PCS 5 tests to a safe return to work have been raised with yourselves and in a number of other forums. These must be met, and we expect each to be tested to justify any increased return to the workplace;
  5. We ask whether the department still believes that ‘return to the workplace’ is a delegated matter. We seek agreement that the department will stick with its current staff in the workplace rates and that home working should be the default. We are clear the union is opposed to a mass return to the workplace;   
  6. In any case, we ask for the Home Office not to agree to the target of 80% of staff to attend their usual workplace each week by the end of September;
  7. We seek agreement that no staff member will be asked to attend the workplace if they do not wish to attend on safety grounds/concerns; in particular
  1. That extremely vulnerable and vulnerable staff will not be asked to attend the work place if they hold such concerns;
  2. That BAME staff who have safety concerns will not be asked to attend the work place; 
  3. That carers who have safety concerns will not be asked to attend the workplace;
  4. That staff in areas under lock down and restrictions will not be asked to return to the workplace;
  5. We ask for confirmation that the Home Office accept the 80% target cannot apply in Wales, Scotland and the Northern Ireland;
  6. We ask for an assurance that 2M distancing in the buildings will not be changed in order to get more staff into the workplace;
  7. We ask for agreement that Government advice still remains that any return to the workplace is conditional on the prevalence of the virus and that in order to keep the virus under control, it is important that people work safely. Working from home remains one way to do this;
  8. We ask for medical or scientific evidence to back any return to the workplace.
  9. We ask you to confirm that current scientific advice is that staff should work from home where possible. Please provide any legal advice that you hold to the contrary;
  10. If the Home Office intend to significantly increase the number of staff returning to workplace can you please confirm that any plans comply with the principles set out in Schedule 1 of the Management of Health and Safety to ‘avoid risks’ and ‘replacing the dangerous with the non dangerous or less dangerous’;
  11. We seek a statement from the Home Office returning to the workplace is just as safe as home working and ask for any legal justification for replacing a safe system of work (in this case home working) with a less safe one (return to the workplaceYours Sincerely,

Yours Sincerely

Mike Jones             James Cox             Pete Wright                 Martin Andrews

Group Secretary      Group President      Group Vice President    Group H&S lead

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