The civil service’s biggest union has urged ministers to intervene after a mass coronavirus outbreak at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s Swansea headquarters left staff afraid to work there.
More than five hundred workers at the DVLA office have contracted Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, making it the UK’s biggest reported employee outbreak of coronavirus.
Some 1,800 of the HQ’s 6,000 staff are being told to work from the office, which deals with driving licence applications and vehicle tax renewals.
The outcry comes after Public Health Wales declared a coronavirus outbreak at the contact centre in December.
Its announcement on 21 December said 62 cases had been confirmed at the workplace in three weeks by NHS Test and Trace. At that point, there had been 352 cases recoded since 1 September – just days after transport secretary Grant Schapps told the public it was “now safe to go back to work”.
There have now been 535 coronavirus cases reported among DVLA workers since September.
Wales’s health and wellbeing minister Eluned Morgan told Radio Cymru the Welsh Government has been “worried about the DVLA for a while, now” and had been “putting pressure” on the agency to deal with the outbreak.
"It comes up time and again from the people who represent Swansea, and we're worried the pressure on people working there hasn't helped,” she said.
"The situation is one of the reasons why we've introduced new rules, new legislation, to tighten the restrictions on people at work."
Health minister Vaughan Gething added that ministers were concerned about anecdotal reports that regulations were not being followed at the site.
A DVLA worker, who chose to remain anonymous told BBC Wales News there were "certain elements within management who are trying to bend the rules and regulations".
They said people who had been in contact with people who had tested positive for coronavirus had not always been sent home, that people were not social distancing in the office and that "archaic" IT was preventing people from working at home.
"It has been mentioned that you don't need your track and trace on. If someone's off with Covid, the people who haven't had their app on haven't been sent home," the official said.
Meanwhile, a recent complaint to the PHW’s outbreak control team said employees were asked to turn off their test-and-trace app “so that their phones do not ping”, according to the Guardian.
The agency has also been counting coronavirus-related absence as part of officials’ sick leave, which results in a warning after 10 days of absence.
The public-health body has been working with Swansea Council, Swansea Bay University Health Board and the Health and Safety Executive to help the DVLA manage its response to the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive said it had been dealing with "a series of concerns" at the DVLA since August.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said it was a “scandal” that the agency had not done more to reduce the number of officials required to come into the workplace despite the rate of infections.
"Our members are telling us they are scared to enter the workplace for fear of catching Covid-19,” he said.
"Ministers must intervene and ensure DVLA are doing their utmost to enable staff to work from home and temporarily cease non-critical services."
The UK-wide workplace safety group The Hazards Campaign, said the DVLA may have contributed to the spread of coronavirus in Swansea.
“It is absolutely shocking that the DVLA has overseen the biggest reported workplace outbreak. These workers should have been working remotely, not being packed into offices. They have been put at risk of death and long-term ill health – and the outbreak is still going on,” its chair, Janet Newsham, said.
Responding to the reports, a DVLA spokesperson told CSW there were currently only four cases across all the DVLA's estate, and none currently at the contact centre, adding: “Staff in roles that enable them to work from home are doing so and have throughout, in line with current government advice.
“However, in view of the essential nature of the public services we provide, some operational staff are required to be in the office where their role means they cannot work from home.”