Downing Street defends 'back to work' push for civil servants after PCS slams ‘unacceptable’ plan

PM spokesman says each department will need to provide assurance that government workplaces are Covid-secure
An empty Whitehall. Photo: Han YanTimIreland/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

By Kate Forrester

28 Jul 2020

Downing Street has defended its decision to encourage civil servants to return to work after a union chief warned of strike action.

Public and Commercial Services union boss Mark Serwotka has said civil servants should query any demand from their departments to go back into the office without detailed assurances about their safety.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has already said people should begin to return to their workplaces, in consultation with their employers, if it is safe to do so, and speaking in response to Serwotka's coments yesterday, the PM's spokesman said: “Just as we’ve advised businesses to do we’re consulting closely with employees on the change to the default that civil servants should work from home. This is in line with the guidance.

“Each department will need to provide assurance that government workplaces are Covid-secure and that employees’ individual circumstances will be taken into account with no individual having to return where there are health reasons for them not to do so.”

Civil service chief Alex Chisholm wrote to the permanent secretaries of all departments last week to say there needed to be an "acceleration" of people returning to work.

But the PCS said the request was "completely unacceptable" and advised members to not just accept they should go back to work.

"Our advice to members is clear, if you are working from home and you get approached by anyone in your department asking you to now go back to work, don’t just accept that’s what you have to do," said Serwotka.

However, the PM's spokesman added: “What we’re proposing is in line with the government’s advice to other employers. Government departments are changing the default that civil servants should work from home and we’re looking to accelerate the return to the workplace from August 1.

“But we will be making sure to consult closely with employees through the process.”

Earlier this month the government's chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, said he did not think there was any reason for people to stop working from home. 

He told the Commons science and technology select committee that the measure remained "a perfectly good option" to help combat the spread of the virus.

Kate Forrester is a senior reporter at PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.


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