Unions raise 'extreme concern' about social distancing at BEIS HQ

Letter to perm sec Sarah Munby was written before it emerged business secretary Alok Sharma had travelled internationally after a colleague contracted coronavirus
Unions were especially concerned about social distancing in business secretary Alok Sharma's private office. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

Three civil service unions have written to Sarah Munby, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, saying they have “extreme concern” about compliance with social-distancing rules – as it emerged business secretary Alok Sharma had travelled overseas despite a confirmed case of coronavirus in his private office.

An inspection by the PCS union of BEIS’s 1 Victoria Street headquarters in Whitehall found a “large number of staff who are going into the workplace are not complying” with social-distancing requirements, especially in Sharma’s private office, according to a letter dated 27 October.

And the letter said the response to a confirmed case of the virus in the private office had “recklessly put a number of people at risk who could otherwise have been working from home”.

The letter, seen by CSW, was sent two days after a member of Sharma’s private office staff reported having coronavirus symptoms. The official then tested positive for the virus on 26 October and some BEIS civil servants who had come into contact with them were forced to self-isolate.

The Guardian reported this week that Sharma had taken a work trip to South Korea on 31 October – after the letter from the unions was sent – despite having taken a meeting with the individual three days before their diagnosis. He continued meeting foreign dignitaries after being told about his colleague’s positive test result, the paper reported.

UK government guidance says that if someone has come into contact with another person who has coronavirus, but does not have symptoms and has not been told to self-isolate, they should continue following social-distancing rules as usual.

But the letter demonstrates the extent of unions’ concerns about the risks to staff in the office before Sharma’s trip.

“There are far too many people on the eighth floor to sufficiently minimise the risk of infection transmission, people are standing too closely together and passing each other too closely,” the letter said.

It added that unions had already voiced “concerns and disagreement” about a decision to allow different rules on social distancing on the eighth floor of the building, where the private office is located. The guidelines state twice as many people are allowed to work on each bank of desks in the area than elsewhere in the building.

“We understood that a pilot (now halted) was to be carried out on the seventh floor to trial these new guidelines, yet these guidelines have already been agreed for [the] eighth floor,” the unions said.

They also said the number of people coming into the office was not justified by the two “valid reasons” under government guidance – that their work can only be done in an office, or their health and safety is at greater risk working from home than travelling into and working in the office.

The letter urged Munby to reduce the number of people working in the Victoria Street building – as well as telling line managers to be more rigorous about how they decide who to let work in the building, and reiterating social-distancing guidance.

She should also ensure managers refuse permission to people who work in the building to those who have failed to stick to the guidance, the unions said, given that they present an “unacceptable health and safety risk to others”.

“Health and safety rules apply to everyone, irrespective of grade or role,” the letter said.

It added: “We are in a very dangerous second wave of a global pandemic with infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 all on the increase.

“We have raised time and time again the risk of people disobeying the rules we have agreed with the department and it is that which drives our position about default working from home. We simply do not understand why the department is not following government advice about this.”

Commenting on the letter, Simon Hardcastle, FDA national officer for BEIS, said: “The FDA supports the government’s efforts to control the spread of Covid-19.

“We are deeply concerned about the reported cases of the virus amongst the BEIS workforce, which is why it is so important that staff continue to work from home unless there are exceptional circumstances and that social distancing and other Covid-secure arrangements are in place for those that need to go into the office. The safety of staff must continue to be the overriding priority for the department.”

A BEIS spokesperson said: “We have put in place extensive measures throughout the building to ensure that the two-metre social distancing rule is being observed, and to maintain a Covid-secure work environment.

“In line with government guidance, the vast majority of our staff continue to work from home, and have done since the beginning of the pandemic. But the extensive measures we have taken ensure that a small number of colleagues who cannot carry out their normal duties from home are able to use the office, as well as those whose home or personal circumstances mean that they need to be able to access the building at least some of the time on a voluntary basis.”

A spokesperson for Sharma said the business secretary had "followed government guidelines at all times".

"He had no close contact with the individual prior to his departure and has not been told to self-isolate by NHS test and trace. As required when travelling to South Korea, the business secretary was tested in the UK prior to departure and again on arrival in South Korea. Both tests returned negative results. Mr Sharma followed the local guidelines at all times during his visit.”

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