The civil service’s biggest union is calling for all departmental staff to be allowed to work from home while the impact of the latest new variant of Covid-19 is being assessed.
PCS has written to civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm with the demand in a letter that also questions the appropriateness of guidance saying departments can “remove some or all measures associated with social distancing” in offices.
Union general secretary Mark Serwotka said recent proposals to increase office attendance among civil servants had not been broached with PCS or its sister civil service unions and were “not warranted” in light of the new Omicron variant and ongoing daily deaths related to coronavirus.
“Whilst we are waiting to learn how transmissible and dangerous [the Omicron variant] is, and whether the current Covid vaccines are fully effective against it, the precautionary principle must be applied,” Serwotka said.
“Chief operating officers must be told that all staff should work from home where possible (which we know the bulk of staff can). For staff, such as those in the Court Service, who have been meeting members of the public, we should review as a matter of urgency how that interaction can be limited.”
Serwotka said recent moves to drive a “substantial increase in capacity of the government estate, and support increased levels of office-based attendance" were inappropriate and potentially illegal.
“It is not only [health and safety] law that the civil service has sought to ignore but also the guidance and laws of the devolved administrations,” he said.
“Until a few days ago, the DWP was in wilful breach of Welsh risk-assessment guidance and currently we are discussing with the same department its interpretation of Scottish guidance.”
Serwotka said 19,000 coronavirus-related deaths had been recorded in the months since “Freedom Day” ended most lockdown restrictions in July.
He asked Chisholm to agree to a meeting to discuss a new approach to dealing with the impact of coronavirus among departments.
“We believe that there should be a fundamental reset of how the civil service deals with the pandemic,” Serwotka said.
“It is not right that we lurch from crisis to crisis, with senior managers seeking – admittedly following the wishes of ministers – to reduce safety measure prematurely when the objective circumstances do not warrant this.”
PCS is also calling for agency and facilities-management staff to be sent home on full pay when remote working becomes the default for most or all civil servants. Additionally, it wants those workers to be given full pay when they have to take sick leave because of Covid-19.
CSW sought a Cabinet Office response to PCS’s demands. It had not provided one at the time of publication.