Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Peter Schofield has given his assurance that staff working remotely will not face a “back to the office” drive when coronavirus-related restrictions are relaxed next week, according to the civil service’s biggest union.
PCS, which has been in ongoing talks with the department about its response to ministers’ strategy for moving out of lockdown, said it supported Schofield’s plans for returning to office working in DWP – but described the government’s approach as “dangerous and reckless”.
It said: “PCS welcomes the commitment from the DWP that there will not be a mass return to work at this stage for those staff currently working from home.”
A DWP spokesperson stressed that the perm sec’s comments had specifically related to the changes taking effect from 19 July.
“Unlocking is an opportunity for more DWP colleagues to gradually return to the office with no immediate change to working patterns,” they said.
PCS said it would continue to press the department to maintain all existing Covid safety control measures in DWP offices, such as two-metre social distancing, the use of face coverings, hybrid working, and an exemption from returning to work for vulnerable staff or those with vulnerable family members.
Earlier this week the union began formal dispute resolution talks with senor officials at DWP about safety fears over the reversion to normal working hours at jobcentres and the resulting expansion of face-to-face interviews. The move follows a consultative ballot in May and June in which 74% of respondents said they were prepared to strike over the issue.
A PCS spokesperson said: “We were clear that members feel even less safe about face-to-face working now than they did at the time of the ballot as a result of the rapid rise in infections due to the Delta variant of the corona virus.”
They added that DWP leadership had given a commitment to continue the talks with a view to settling the dispute.
PCS is calling for face-to-face interviews to be limited to only those service users identified as the most vulnerable until the current vaccine rollout programme is complete and low rates of infection have been sustained “for a significant period”.
According to the most up-to-date daily statistics produced by Public Health England, 42,302 people tested positive for Covid-19 for the first time in the 24-hour period reported yesterday. Current daily infection rates in the UK are the highest they have been since February.
PCS also wants work coaches to be allowed to decide for themselves how to progress their caseloads, and for DWP management to carry out a full equality analysis on extended services and any significant return of staff to offices.
DWP has consistently maintained that health and safety measures at all of its sites are kept under constant review and reports of positive cases of Covid-19 are immediately escalated to protect staff.
“We have worked closely with the unions throughout this pandemic to keep the health and safety of colleagues at the centre of our response to provide vital Jobcentre support to those who need us,” a DWP spokesperson said.
“Our jobcentres are essential public services, which have been available throughout this pandemic, and we welcome the on-going negotiations to keep this vital support in place for the public.
“We remain absolutely committed to maintaining all our services to customers, and ensuring our sites remain Covid secure in line with the latest public health and government guidance.”
This story was updated at 18:40 on 15 July 2021 to include additional comments from DWP