The PCS trade union has blasted ministers as “reckless” for stepping up face-to-face services for benefit claimants at jobcentres and warned that strike action could result from staff anger over the move.
PCS said the decision to resume pre-lockdown opening hours at jobcentres this week would increase the likelihood of avoidable Covid-19 infections among staff and was unnecessary because services were successfully being delivered by staff working from home.
The union, which last week staged a four-day strike at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency over Covid safety fears, said stepping up face-to-face services at jobcentres was at odds with government advice that civil servants should continue to work from home if they could.
It said it believed the “real driver” for requiring 18-24-year-old Universal Credit claimants and service users on jobskeeker’s allowance back to attend face-to-face interviews was to reinstate the previous sanctions regime that enabled benefits to be stopped more easily.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said Department for Work and Pensions management had ignored the union’s concerns over potential Covid outbreaks and strike action would be among the options under consideration.
“This reckless move by ministers is wholly unnecessary and risks putting both claimants and jobcentre staff in harm's way,” he said.
“DWP staff have been doing an incredible job delivering key services such as Universal Credit and helping those most in need, access the assistance they require, throughout the pandemic.
“It is counterproductive and arrogant for ministers to risk staff and the wider public’s health by resuming normal jobcentre opening hours before the vaccine is fully rolled out and when these services are being successfully delivered from home.
“The anger of our members is palpable and we are not ruling out strike action until a just settlement is found.”
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. It said protection measures included rigorous cleaning regimes, strict social distancing and the rolling out of lateral flow testing for colleagues at larger sites.
“Throughout this pandemic jobcentres have remained open to ensure we can continue to provide vital support to the most vulnerable. Our return to full opening hours will enable us to provide even more help and support to those who need us,” a spokesperson said.
“We take the health and safety of colleagues extremely seriously, and are absolutely committed to ensuring all our sites remain Covid secure in line with Public Health England and government guidance to keep colleagues and customers safe.”
In September last year the Health and Safety Executive called for improvements to the Covid safety regime at the department’s Quarry House hub in Leeds following an inspection that found a litany of concerns.
Last month Quarry House was designated as DWP’s second headquarters by work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey.