‘I hope an enduring legacy will be how we seek to work together’: one civil service union’s Covid lessons

The deputy general secretary of Prospect says the civil service has never before worked at such pace as it had to in response to coronavirus. Close collaboration between staff and employees could be one the pandemic’s legacie

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By Garry Graham

25 Jun 2020

When the current crisis is over, it is my hope that people will look back on it as one of the defining moments of success in the civil service, and as a hugely positive example of unions making a difference. Trade union engagement has been essential not only to the safety of staff but also the ability of the civil service to support and protect citizens, businesses and our country. It is easy to forget the pace of movement. Looking at my diary – Prospect was interviewed on Sky News calling for access by visitors to the House of Commons to be limited due to the threat of the spread of Covid-19. In some quarters the call was regarded as outlandish – this was Friday 13 March. Ten days later, the prime minister announced “lockdown” across the UK.

I have never seen the civil service reorganise itself at such pace or have to deal with key issues of policy development and delivery at such speed. Even before the pandemic, with Brexit in the offing, the country in peacetime has never been more reliant on its civil service. It is not an exaggeration to say that the way the civil service has responded to the Covid crisis is akin to gearing up for a war effort. That is all the more remarkable with around 80% of civil servants working from home. A significant number of staff have been having to attend workplaces for operational reasons – keeping our transportation system safe, protecting the food chain, supporting our nation’s defence, protecting people at work – the list goes on. I reflect with irony on those who suggested that the country was “sick of experts”. Daily press briefings have seen ministers and the prime minister himself flanked by experts and it has felt the public has looked more to them for their views as opposed to the opinions of ministers.

Keeping our members in the civil service safe and supporting their work and wellbeing has been crucial to everything that Prospect has been doing – working with other unions, individual employers, the Cabinet Office and representatives in the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. By working closely, what has felt like a blizzard of guidance has been produced, seeking to ensure the civil service continues to deliver and staff are protected and supported. The pandemic has also shone light of the impact of austerity and capacity challenges for the civil service. STEM skills at all levels are crucial, and in both policy development and delivery. 

As more officials return to work, detailed negotiations are taking place with individual employers to produce guidance and remote training on a range of issues including workplace risk assessments, which will be crucial to building confidence as staff return to work over time. We have also negotiated arrangements where staff have particular safety concerns that these can be escalated rapidly and that staff have confidence that they should not be required to put themselves in harm’s way.

For many Prospect members – across the public and private sector – the management of risk and safety is part of their professional day job. The pandemic has been unique in its challenges however, safety has been at the fore – but so also has been ensuring that members are dealt with fairly and feel supported by their employer and their union. Some of our webinars on wellbeing and mental health have been the most popular we have done.
We are about to survey our members on their experiences over the past months and their hopes and expectations of work for the future. Government guidance on working from home remains unchanged though there are more staff returning for essential operational work. Through positive engagement with employers this is being done in ways that command the confidence of employees with rigorous risk assessments and the ability of individuals to escalate concerns where they believe safety may be being compromised.

The past months have shown how extraordinary the civil service is and how everyone benefits when unions and employers are able to work positively together. Many civil servants have been the unsung heroes of the health crisis and politicians owe them a debt of gratitude. I am proud as a union that our expertise has helped keep people safe and members have felt supported. I hope an enduring legacy of the pandemic will be how we seek to work together.

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