Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency staff who are members of the civil service’s biggest union are set to be balloted on strike action over concerns about the safety of on-site working at the organisation’s Swansea campus.
The PCS is calling for a “huge reduction” in the 2,000 staff DVLA currently requires to keep working on-site – just under one-third of its total workforce – after more than 500 staff tested positive for coronavirus in recent months.
It will open its strike ballot for members on 18 February and it will run until 11 March. The union warned the poll could result in “spring walkouts” among members. PCS is also due to open a strike ballot for HM Courts and Tribunals staff working at 12 courts, alongside a consultative ballot for other members who work at HMCTS.
DVLA says a range of safety measures introduced mean its Swansea offices are Covid-secure and large quantities of paper correspondence received every day make a larger-scale shift to remote working impractical.
Chief executive Julie Lennard told MPs on parliament’s Transport Select Committee last month that the spike in staff testing positive for coronavirus since September was the result of the pandemic’s spread in the wider local community, not any failings on the part of DVLA.
Ahead of the ballot opening, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the union has repeatedly called for a huge reduction in footfall at DVLA and that just 250 people were in the workplace carrying out essential duties during the first lockdown last year.
"It is a scandal that DVLA have insisted over 2,000 staff members come into work every day, despite having the biggest outbreak of Covid in an office workplace within the UK,” he said.
"DVLA senior management led by CEO Julie Lennard have shown a cruel indifference to safety of their staff by repeatedly attacking the union and rubbishing testimony where workers have expressed their real fear at going into work.
"Balloting our members for strike action shows the anger workers feel at their treatment and PCS will also support them in any individual Section 44 claims they make to keep themselves safe."
Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 protects employees who need to leave their workplace – or a dangerous part of it – because they face serious or imminent danger.
DVLA chief executive Lennard told MPs on the Transport Committee last month that the organisation had not hosted a “mass outbreak” of coronavirus and that it was also not fair to describe the number of staff infections as one of the biggest workplace outbreaks.
She denied reports that staff had been instructed to turn off the track and trace app on their mobile phones and told to come into work when they had coronavirus symptoms.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said rigorous protocols were in place to protect workers at DVLA’s offices, including strict social distancing between workstations and tightly controlled staff bubbles to minimise contact.
“These protocols are kept under regular review and the DVLA continues to take additional measures wherever possible to ensure the safety of its staff, including recently opening an additional office space and offering lateral flow testing to staff on site,” they said.
“All of this has led to a very low number of cases currently among staff.
“It is disappointing to see that staff at DVLA are being encouraged to carry out industrial action by the PCS. This action will only create unnecessary anxiety for those conducting critical work on-site.”
DfT said that because incidences of Covid-19 were currently at a low level among DVLA’s on-site staff, reducing numbers working from its offices further would have little impact on case numbers but “significant impacts” on the delivery of vital public services.
The department said a backlog of 1.4 million documents had been created before the introduction of Covid-secure arrangements in March last year.