The civil service’s biggest trade union has told officials only to go back into the office if they believe it is safe after what it called an “unacceptable” call to do so.
PCS said it would be holding talks with the Cabinet Office this week, after civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm wrote to permanent secretaries about changes to remote-working guidance as coronavirus restrictions are lifted nationally.
The majority of civil servants have been working from home since coronavirus lockdown measures were implemented in March.
The union was told last week that Chisholm had written to perm secs following a speech by the prime minister urging people who have been working from home during the coronavirus crisis to return to their offices.
Announcing a handful of new measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including mandatory wearing of masks in shops, earlier this month, Johnson said: "It's very important that people should be going back to work if they can now. I think everybody has sort of taken the 'stay at home if you can' - I think we should now say, well, 'go back to work if you can'.”
Chisholm’s letter said it would be up to individual departments to decide on their own working arrangements. Some departments have already said they will not be returning to normal for some time, including the Home Office, which has said some officials could expect to continue working remotely for a year.
However, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said it was apparent civil servants were being asked to “set an example” to the rest of the country from 1 August, when Johnson said the “stay at home” advice would end.
In a letter to the Cabinet Office, Serwotka said the “unnecessary and hasty push for an upscaling at workplaces has the potential to create serious industrial unrest”.
And in an open message to civil servants, Serwotka said he had told the Cabinet Office the move was “completely unacceptable”.
“That demand is not based on our members’ health and safety, or on helping our economy, it is based entirely on political pressure being exerted by some MPs – mainly Conservative Party MPs – who are demanding that the civil service is used as an example to get everybody back to work,” he said.
“Now, that’s the completely wrong approach. People should only go back to work when it is safe to do so. Everyone’s health and safety surely must be the top priority.”
He added: “So our advice to members is clear, if you are working from home and you get approached by anyone in your department asking you to now go back to work, don’t just accept that’s what you have to do.”
Serwotka invited members to contact their union representatives if they have concerns.
PCS will meet representatives from the Cabinet Office this week to discuss measures to ensure its members can return to government premises safely.
Serwotka said the talks would cover public transport, social distancing measures and equality assessments to support PCS’s black members. Research by Public Health England has shown higher rates of infection and death from coronavirus among Black, Asian and minority-ethnic people.
The union will also address how any changes in working arrangements could affect people with childcare difficulties or “people with genuine fears because they are ill or are still shielding”.
“So much needs to be done, and all of that is going to take quite a bit of time,” he said.