HM Passport Office has put back plans to reopen two offices and increase staffing levels at five other locations after doubts were raised over the safety of workers.
PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, was angered last week by a leaked recording of a video conference involving HMPO management that revealed there were Home Office plans for 2,000 passport staff to return to work during the coronavirus lockdown.
During the meeting, deputy chief scientific adviser Rupert Shute was reported to have said: “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,” and “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.”
In response, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka called for an investigation into Shute’s comments and later asked the Home Office to clarify the department’s policy on keeping workers safe from coronavirus.
The Home Office had intended to re-open the Belfast and Newport offices from 14 April and to increase the numbers of staff in the office at the five other sites which had remained open with skeleton staffing.
But after PCS officials met with the Cabinet Office last Thursday the union wrote to the permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft calling for an immediate halt to bringing HMPO staff back into work.
And, in what the PCS is claiming as a victory, HMPO has “now decided to defer this action for a short period to enable further discussions to take place with PCS and staff so as to ensure that all concerns about safety measures, whether that be for the office environment or for travel into the office, have been aired, responded to and addressed where necessary.”
In a statement, the union said: “We’ve listened to the concern from our members across HMPO and the wider Home Office.”
“They have told us that they understand and support the department in delivering essential services at this time of national crisis.
“But they [members] have also told us that they find it extremely difficult to understand why, when we are seeing the highest fatality rate in Europe, their employer considers this a time to take wholly unnecessary risks with their health and well-being.”
PCS said it had asked the Home Office how many people were expected back at each of the main Passport Office sites this week.
HMPO said it was operating at “substantially restricted” staffing levels with priority being given to emergency cases and that a significant number of people were working from home.
It said the phased return of staff to HMPO offices would take place once the third-party assessment work was complete.
A Home Office spokesperson said HMPO was “fully adhering to public health advice across all offices” and adopting social distancing measures to keep both its staff and customers safe.
“HMPO continues to prioritise emergency cases but has decided to briefly defer the phased return of people to its offices to allow sites to be independently assessed for further reassurance,” they said.
The issues surrounding staff concerns over returning to their offices were put into a legal context for Personnel Today by Melanie Stancliffe, partner at Cripps Pemberton Greenish, who said: “An employer is legally entitled to require staff to continue to attend their workplace if: the work can’t be done from home; the organisation has not been instructed to close and the employer can meet the guidance on social distancing. Employers must still ensure the health and safety of their employees and make adjustments for employees with conditions that amount to a disability.
“Refusing to go to work is likely to result in disciplinary action or deductions from pay. However, HR must be careful before acting against an employee who has raised a serious and imminent threat to their health. They are protected from detriments like pay reductions and can claim in tribunal. If the risk is severe, an employee can resign and claim constructive dismissal (for the breach of the employer’s duties).
“Where an employee falls ill with Covid-19, their colleagues do not have a right to know. An employer should, however, review the risk, alert other employees if there is a risk to their health risk (ideally anonymously to protect the first employee’s personal data) and close and deep clean the office or floor.”