Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency chief executive Julie Lennard has told MPs that claims the Swansea-based organisation has been at the centre of a “mass outbreak” of coronavirus are incorrect.
Answering questions from members of parliament’s Transport Select Committee today, Lennard accepted that the agency had recorded more than 500 cases of coronavirus among staff since September after very low numbers in the early months of the pandemic.
She also accepted that Public Health Wales had declared a coronavirus outbreak at DVLA’s contact centre in December, when 62 cases were recorded in the first three weeks of the month alone.
But she denied reports that staff had been instructed to turn off the track and trace app on their mobile phones and told to come into work when they had coronavirus symptoms.
Wednesday’s Transport Committee session followed a story in the Observer on Sunday that civil servants working for DVLA were at the centre of the nation’s largest outbreak. The PCS union called on ministers to intervene at the agency over the issues raised.
Lennard told MPs that her agency – which has more than 6,000 staff - had just a handful of workers who were currently Covid-19 positive.
“It’s not the case that DVLA has a mass outbreak. It is also not fair to characterise it as one of the biggest workplace outbreaks,” she said.
Lennard said comments attributed to unnamed DVLA staff that were reported by the Observer and its sister title the Guardian were incorrect or not borne out by the agency’s own statistics.
“Where they quoted anonymously from members of staff, and they said things like ‘there are cases on every floor now’, that’s not true,” she said. “We have four cases among people who are at work at the current time.”
Lennard said it was “also not true” that DVLA had lots of staff currently off with extreme stress.
“Having checked our sickness absence rates for the last two years, January 21 is no different to January 20 and January 19. It’s a pretty constant figure,” she said.
“One of the other claims was from a member of staff who spoke to journalists anonymously, it would seem.... He said he’d had to self-isolate six times. We’ve been through all of our records and we don’t have a single member of staff who’s had to self-isolate six times.”
Lennard told MPs the agency had a staff member who had self-isolated five times, 14 people who had isolated four times, 40 who had isolated three times, and 176 who had isolated twice.
“That tells me two things. One of them is that the reports that staff were being asked to ignore track and trace advice altogether and come in when they had symptoms clearly isn’t borne out by statistics,” she said.
Lennard added that the staff member who had to self-isolated five times needed to “look at whether they’re adhering to all the guidelines both in and out of work”.
DVLA cases 'reflect community infections'
MPs were told that only around 11 DVLA staff had had positive test results for coronavirus up to September, but around 525 workers had tested positive since.
"Our figures very much reflect what’s happening in the local community," Lennard said.
"When local community rates are high, our rates went up as well."
Lennard said that around one-third of the organisation's 6,295 staff were working remotely and one-third were working at one of its eight Swansea buildings. She said flexible-working arrangements and leave meant that significant proportions of DVLA employees were not working on any given day.
Lennard said that while much of DVLA's work was digital, it still dealt with a huge amount of paperwork and recieved 60,000 items a day, which hampered greater remote working.
She said she had been in ongoing discussions with ministers about how the number of staff on site could be reduced further.
Lennard told MPs she had only been on site at DVLA once this year so far, and had visited "six or seven times" since October.
HR and estates director Louise White said she had not been on site since "probably October", but said staff had given her virtual tours of "Covid-secure" safety measures that had been introduced.
White told MPs that she could not justify encouraging staff to adhere to strict safety rules limiting them to particular zones, but then break the rules by going on walkabouts herself.
“I meet with my HR and estates team every morning and we have a session to talk about what’s happening and where the issues are," she said.
"I see things like floorplans, et cetera, and I talk to security regularly about what they’re observing on the site. I don’t think it’s wise to encourage staff to go in if they don’t need to be there.”