Civil service Covid-19 safety measures revealed as 'low' number of officials return to offices

Virtual meetings, desk booking and one-way systems among measures to ensure staff “work as safely as possible, whether remotely or in the workplace”
Floor stickers remind civil servants to social distance at the Department for International Trade HQ in Whitehall. Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

The number of civil servants returning to government premises in the coming weeks will be “low”, the Cabinet Office has said, as it unveils some of the measures departments are taking to protect staff returning to work.

The vast majority of civil servants have been working from home since coronavirus lockdown measures were introduced in March. As of 1 August – from which date the prime minister has said employers will have "more discretion" to ask staff to return – civil servants will begin a phased return to the office, with some continuing to work from home for several months.

“There will be some staff who will need to return to the workplace, but the number of people in the workplace will initially remain low compared to our normal capacity numbers,” Cabinet Office guidance published this week stated.

“The civil service supports the ability of all our staff to work as safely as possible, whether remotely or in the workplace,” the document, which summarises the government’s Covid-19 workplace risk assessment for departments, said.

Risks identified by departments as civil servants return to the office include staff contracting Covid-19 and passing it on to others; infection during travel to and from the office; and infection from shared premises, shared workstations and handling incoming and outgoing goods.

The first to return

The first civil servants to stop working remotely will be teams and individuals who are most likely to benefit from working in the office; those who cannot do their job, or parts of their job, from home; and those who cannot work from home because their environment is unsuitable or risks their security or wellbeing. This includes civil servants at risk of domestic abuse.

Managers should speak to staff about any potential return to the workplace in the coming weeks. Civil servants who want to return because of their personal or home circumstances must have management approval.

Those who need to work in the office regularly will be organised into groups to reduce the number of people they come into contact with each day and to ensure that “where contact is unavoidable it happens between the same people, wherever possible”.

Shift patterns and desk-booking systems will be used where possible to further reduce staff contact with each other.

Staff with protected characteristics are entitled under the Equality Act to a specific risk assessment to identify reasonable adjustments they may need to work safely.

“We take our duty of care as an employer incredibly seriously and we want to protect all our people, especially those who may be more vulnerable as we learn more about the nature of the disease,” the guidance says.

Work-related travel will be kept to a minimum.

There is a strict ban on any employees coming into the office if they are experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, “however mild”, and civil servants will be expected to follow government guidance on self-isolating and the test, track and trace system.

Social distancing, virtual meetings and no shared work stations

Any employees coming into work will be expected to follow government rules on social distancing, staying two metres apart at all times. Where this is not possible, mitigations have been put in place to allow them to follow the new “one metre-plus” guidance, including plastic screens at reception areas.

Staff will not be made to wear masks but will have the option to.

The guidance sets out a number of measures departments have taken to ensure staff can social distance at work. Capacity is being limited in lifts and communal areas such as bathrooms and kitchens, and one-way systems are being used where possible. Non-essential areas such as gyms and catering facilities have been closed, and revolving doors have been taken out of commission where possible.

Cleaning equipment and hand-sanitising stations have been installed throughout buildings and staff will be encouraged to wipe down their work stations regularly.

The guidance tells officials not to share work stations, unless absolutely necessary – in which case they should be shared by the “smallest possible number of people”.

Meetings are to be held virtually where possible, or in designated meeting rooms that allow social distancing. Visitors will be allowed “by exception and only by prior arrangement”.

'Ensuring workplaces are Covid-19 secure'

The measures are intended to ensure all officials, visitors and contractors that need to work in government buildings can do so safely.

The assessments are in line with a requirement, set out in guidance by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on 11 May, to carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment and consult with trade unions or workers on their health and safety measures.

“The relevant BEIS guidance has been considered in the preparation of this document, to reflect the diverse nature of the government estate,” the document says.

Civil service HR and the Government Property Agency have developed further internal guidance to support the implementation of government guidance, which departments can use to develop plans to increase workplace capacity safely.

Each department will carry out its own risk assessment and share specific guidance for its staff.

"Civil service departments should consult with employees on how they can work safely and ensure that workplaces are Covid-19 secure to manage the risks of transmission in line with the [government] guidelines," it said.

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