The civil service’s biggest union has dubbed the Department for Work and Pensions’ ministerial leadership team “incompetent” for refusing to close jobcentres in boroughs that have the highest infection rates for the so-called “Indian variant” of Covid-19.
PCS said its representatives in Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside had called for the move following updated local guidance advising people from different households to only meet outdoors and maintain a two-metre distance in those areas.
The union said members working for DWP in the eight affected areas were angry their concerns were not being taken seriously despite the guidance.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said the decision not to suspend face-to-face contact with service users in the most-affected areas was at odds with the extra precautions residents in those areas were being asked to take.
“It cannot be right that our members are being put in harm's way once again, even though new government guidance says people from different households should not meet indoors,” he said.
“DWP staff deal with a range of claimants who travel in from across the wider region so asking them to travel to jobcentres for appointments contradicts the government’s own advice.
“This is just the latest example of incompetent ministers showing scant regard for the safety of their own staff who could provide a first-class service to claimants by working from home.”
PCS is currently balloting its members on their appetite for strike action over Covid-safety measures at jobcentres.
The move follows the expansion of face-to-face interviews for service users last month, which the union said was premature and should be delayed until the vaccine programme is complete and low rates of infection have been sustained for a “significant period”.
The consultative ballot was due to close last week, but has now been extended to run until 2 June.
DWP said health and safety measures at all of its sites were kept under constant review and reports of positive cases of Covid-19 on site were immediately escalated to protect staff.
“Colleague and customer safety is our priority as our jobcentres provide vital support to those who need it during this difficult time,” a spokesperson said.
“We continue to work closely with the unions to ensure our sites are Covid secure in line with PHE and government guidance.”
DWP said protection measures included rigorous cleaning regimes, strict social distancing and lateral flow testing for colleagues at larger sites.