HM Passport Office staff may soon be urged to return to work in their offices by the government, to the alarm of employees and unions.
A leaked transcript of a video meeting involving top HMPO bosses suggests up to 2,000 members of staff could return to work on “routine” passport applications despite a ban on international travel, a huge downturn in people booking holidays and a rising Covid-19 death toll in the UK.
Coronavirus health and safety
During the meeting, deputy chief scientific adviser Rupert Shute was reported to have said that staying at home was important but “we also have to keep functioning our lives”.
He added: “You are no more at risk at the workplace as you would be in your home or at the supermarket. It is about minimising it.”
In an echo of the mooted herd immunity strategy of mid-March, Shute apparently told the meeting: “We are working on the assessment that 80% of us, if we haven’t already, will get the virus. We cannot hide away from it forever.”
Public and Commercial Services Union general secretary Mark Serwotka said in response: “For the deputy chief scientific adviser at the Home Office to suggest that going into work does not put you at greater risk of contracting coronavirus is extremely irresponsible and totally contradicts current government guidance.
There was a suggestion during the meeting from Myrtle Lloyd, HMPO’s chief operating officer, that the need to go back to the office was to do with the aftermath of the crisis.
Lloyd reportedly said the guidance did not mean that staff “should stay at home instead of delivering critical services”.
“What is also critical for us as a business is to have a manageable level of work in the system, so that when we start our recovery we are not overwhelmed by our demands,” she reportedly said.
But the PCS union has since received a series of complaints from its members, many of whom said their work was not essential at a time when so little overseas travel taking place.
One member said that the Home Office’s “actions are going to kill people”, while another said: “If my family die because you insist I need to come to work before the surge passes (having isolated until now), I will pursue a claim against HMPO [and the] Home Office for negligence.”
Serwotka’s statement added: “Processing passports is not critical work while we are in lockdown and international travel is practically non-existent due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We call for an immediate investigation into these remarks by Rupert Shute and urge the Home Office to publicly distance themselves from his comments.
“It is absolutely scandalous that HMPO are suggesting our members can go back into work during a pandemic to process routine passports.
“The cavalier approach to our members health and safety is shameful and ultimately puts them in greater danger of contracting Covid-19.
“We have already had members die as a result of contracting Covid-19 and pressured civil service managers in other departments to shut offices so staff can work from home.”
Meanwhile, HMRC has closed three offices where staff had suffered from Covid-19 symptoms for deep cleaning, and is working with the PCS union on a protocol that would guide managers on how to respond to coronavirus outbreaks among staff.
According to Civil Service World, Trinity Bridge House in Salford, where a member of staff died after being sent home from work with apparent coronavirus symptoms; St Clare House in Ipswich; and Plas Gororau in Wrexham, will all be closed for a week.
During negotiations between PCS, HMRC and the Cabinet Office, the union has urged managers to close any tax offices where key workers are based if there are suspected or confirmed outbreaks of Covid-19 among staff.