From 1 August, the government is pausing shielding unless the transmission of COVID-19 in the community starts to rise significantly.
What is meant by significantly is undefined, but it means the government will no longer be advising those who extremely clinically vulnerable to shield. Consequently, managers are asking or in some cases ordering that individuals who have been shielding return to work. This includes those people who have been provided with equipment to enable them to work from home. Those shielding may still be at risk of severe illness if they catch coronavirus.
PCS has received a number of concerns raised by members through our local reps and our PCS Covid-19 contact line about HMCTS staff being recalled to work with very little or no consideration of their individual circumstances, including the manner by which they would travel to and from work. Some of these contacts have included threats of disciplinary action and loss of pay for those staff who do not return to work regardless of their individual circumstances and the risks facing them and their families or guarantees about how social distancing can be maintained.
Need for Meaningful Consultation
PCS has called on all government departments including the MoJ to properly consult PCS over safe working before submitting plans to get more people back into their workplaces. We are opposed to this change of position as the scientific advice has not changed; it still remains that members should work at home where they can.
On 16 July, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: "Of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it's easy to do,” he said. “I think a number of companies think [homeworking is] actually not detrimental to productivity. And in that situation, there's absolutely no reason I can see to change it."
PCS has asked for a guarantee that our members will not be instructed to return to the workplace if they can work from home or for a medical reason they should stay at home.
Suitable and sufficient risk assessments
The law requires the employer to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of their premises. HMCTS has designed an “assessment tool” for this purpose. Whilst it has been agreed that the process must involve consultation with our appointed health and safety representatives, PCS has not been able to agree that the risk assessment tool being used by the employer is suitable or sufficient and therefore can result in any workplace being Covid Secure. In many circumstances representatives advise that in meaningful consultation with them is not taking place
In addition, we have been unable to agree a template for an individual risk assessment with the employer. This is separate to the Covid Secure risk assessment. The former assesses buildings, the latter people. HMCTS has indicated individual risk assessment is unnecessary as there is guidance for managers in place. PCS does not agree that the “guidance” amounts to or replaces the legal requirement to individually risk assess.
An Individual Risk Assessment enables an employee, in discussion with their line manager, to obtain an indication of the risk level they face in returning to, or being in the workplace. It allows them to identify arrangements that can be made to help them in reducing the risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19. It ensures that the employee’s characteristics, their role and workplace environment, health and family background, as well as other considerations including home circumstances, access needs and travel to the workplace, are central to the assessment and the subsequent actions.
While there will be further Cabinet Office talks, PCS will be seeking firm commitments in relation to members’ safety in line with our 5 tests for safe working. PCS wrote to the HMCTS Chief Executive Susan Acland Hood on 2 July. 21 working days later we have not received an acknowledgement, let alone a reply.
Advice to members
Given our concerns that some members have been recalled to work next week whilst these issues remain unresolved, we have decided to issue the following advice.
If you have been recalled to work and have not had an individual one-to-one discussion that has identified your individual circumstances, including the means by which you would travel to and from work, has identified the risks posed to you or the persons in your household and not put in place sufficient measures to address those concerns before you are expected to return to work – then you will need to assess whether this places you or your family at serious and imminent risk and consider on an individual basis whether you are willing to attend work before those measures are implemented. All members received individual advice from PCS on 15 May regarding assessing that risk on an individual basis.
You should contact your manager and raise your concerns before returning to work. If after that discussion you are still concerned that your individual circumstances have not been properly considered and/or the measures agreed between you and your manager are insufficient and/or they have not been put in place before your return to work date, and/or you feel that undue pressure is being placed on your regardless of your individual circumstances; then please contact the PCS Covid-19 contact line or your local rep and they will give you some initial advice based on your individual circumstances.