The civil service’s biggest union has called on the Cabinet Office to rethink plans for 80% of staff to return to their workplaces by the end of the month as expectations mount that the UK will face a second wave of Covid-19 in the coming weeks.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said in a letter to Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm that “no responsible employer would try to force large numbers of staff back to the workplace in these circumstances”.
Serwotka’s letter follows a warning from deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam, who said earlier this week that rising numbers of Covid cases across the UK were a “great concern”. The letter comes ahead of new rules that will come into force on Monday making it illegal to socialise in a group of more than six people who are not part of the same household or support bubble. Workplaces are exempt, however.
The government’s drive for 80% of civil servants to return to their workplaces by the end of this month emerged at the weekend in a joint letter from outgoing cabinet secretary and Chisholm – who is also chief operating officer of the civil service – to other perm secs. Unions reacted with frustration to the news.
But Serwotka said in his letter that increasing concerns about a sharp rise in coronavirus cases – including higher numbers of cases in government offices – meant the government should look again at the “arbitrary” return-to-work target that he said appeared not to have considered health and safety law.
“There is a real prospect that by the end of September we will see a similar prevalence of the virus as is currently being experienced in France, Spain, and other European countries, particularly given the large number of students travelling back to universities and colleges in the next few weeks,” he said.
Serwotka said that as well as a failure to justify the 80% target or explain how it was compatible with Schedule 1 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the return-to-work call also failed to take account of local lockdowns and issues faced by staff whose children were off school because of Covid-19 outbreaks.
“I strongly urge you to reconsider the requirements placed on departments by your letter of 3 September, and I request an urgent meeting to discuss the serious issues it has raised,” he concluded.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said yesterday that the new social distancing rules would play a key role in controling the spread of coranavirus over the coming weeks.
"It is incredibly important that everybody follows these new rules," he said. "We will be bringing in strict enforcement so that they can be followed."
From Monday, anyone found flouting the rules will be liable for a £100 on-the-spot fine, which will double for repeat offences up to £3,200.