HM Revenue and Customs’s demand that its Wales-based staff return to their offices within weeks is “deeply concerning”, the civil service’s biggest union has said.
The UK government tax agency issued four weeks’ notice on 28 April for all staff in Wales to return to their offices.
PCS said it is “extremely disappointed and concerned” by the command, which it believes contradicts current Welsh Government guidance that employers “should enable some or all staff to work from home, as often as possible”.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Throughout the pandemic, HMRC and PCS have agreed it's vital to follow not just UK government public health guidance, but to follow guidance issued by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“It’s deeply concerning then for HMRC to decide to move away from that agreed position and to selectively adopt changes in the guidance from the Welsh Government.”
Serwotka said the union is continuing to press HMRC to reverse its decision and follow all Welsh Government guidance for as long as Wales remains at its current state of alert over Covid.
Wales moved to alert level zero on 29 January, the lowest of five levels. The Welsh Government’s guidance states that this means employers should enable some or all staff to work from home as often as possible, particularly during high prevalence periods (such as autumn/winter)” to minimise the risk of spreading disease.
“Employers who are considering requiring their staff to return to workplace settings should first assess whether alternative arrangements could meet the majority of business needs in order to minimise the risk of exposure to or spread of communicable diseases,” the guidance adds.
PCS said HMRC’s demands for a return to offices is a move away from this guidance, but the department said it is not asking officials to work in a high-prevalence period as it is not currently autumn or winter, nor will it be once the four weeks’ notice is up.
HMRC said it has put in place “the considerable mitigation of asking colleagues to return on a hybrid rather than a full-time office working model” and it is “content” that meets the “as often as possible” standard set out in the guidance.
The department said its timetable for returns – four weeks’ notice plus an up-to-two months supported return for those at higher risk or who need additional time or support – offers an “enhanced level of personal support” and goes beyond the Welsh Government guidance.
A HMRC spokesperson said: “We’ve thoroughly reviewed HMRC’s position, in response to the Welsh Government’s guidance and we’re confident that we meet all its requirements.
“Along with other UK civil service employers, we feel that the time is now appropriate to begin a return to the office in Wales, as we have sufficient control measures in place, to mitigate the risk of Covid.
HMRC also pointed to the section of the Welsh Government guidance that says the risks from coronavirus “should now be considered in the same context as other communicable diseases risks (for example flu and norovirus)”.
PCS has also raised its concerns with the Welsh Government.
A spokesperson said: “Although there is no legal requirement to work from home, it remains an effective public health control measure that can be used to minimise exposure to and spread of coronavirus, as well as other respiratory infections and other communicable diseases.
“We encourage businesses and employers to consider home working as part of their general duties under the Health and Safety and Work legislation.
“We continue to promote the economic, social and environmental benefits of remote working where possible, and would like to have 30% of Welsh workers working at or near to home on a regular basis.
“This is not a requirement on businesses and many employers have already taken a proactive approach to these changes in working styles.”