Whitehall’s biggest union has reacted furiously to a leaked transcript of a video-conference in which HM Passport Office bosses discussed requiring up to 2,000 members of staff to return to work on routine applications despite the Covid-19 lockdown and a ban on international travel.
The PCS said it had written to Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft asking him to set out the department’s policy on staff safety in relation to coronavirus and seeking confirmation that the HMPO return-to-work plans had been halted, pending high-level discussions on how to best protect workers.
It said that elements of the video conference, conducted on the Zoom application, had included Home Office deputy chief scientific officer Rupert Shute suggesting that staff were “no more at risk at the workplace as you would be in your home or at the supermarket”.
PCS said other lines put to staff were the inevitability that most of them would contract Covid-19 eventually; the potential for numerous peaks of infection over the coming months and years; and a lack of distinction between critical and non-critical work in terms of which staff were required to return.
Mike Jones, the union’s Home Office group secretary, said the organisation fervently disagreed with the position put forward by HMPO’s chief operating officer and Shute in the meeting.
“Many members have rightly expressed anger with the assertion that [they] are at the forefront of the government’s next stage of virus control: that is the deliberate infection of them,” he wrote in his letter to perm sec Rycroft.
“We find this shocking as it amounts to next-stage herd immunity. This is an absolutely outrageous position to be putting staff in.
“We call for an immediate suspension of the HMPO work plans and a halt to bringing staff back into HMPO offices. This is to allow discussions at the highest level with PCS on an agreement that puts the safety of staff at the forefront of HMPO plans.
“We request that you set out in writing to PCS the official Home Office position in relation to containing the spread of Covid-19 and the protection of staff from contracting the virus. We also call on the Home Office to publicly distance themselves from the comments made by the deputy chief scientific adviser.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said he had spoken with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove earlier in the day and that the union was clear that members should be working from home unless they were undertaking critical work.
“Processing routine passport applications is in no way critical work,” he said. “What Rupert Shute has told staff, suggesting going to work ‘as normal is not putting you in harm’s way, any more so than staying at home’ and that 80% of people will contract Covid-19, is a return to the discredited herd immunity strategy which the government rejects.
"We believe the position must be everyone should be at home unless it is critical work. The passport office announcement flies in the face of that and is business-driven with scant regard for our members' safety.
“The passport office must reverse its decision and we hope common sense prevails.”
HMPO currently has around 3,500 staff at various locations in the UK. Abi Tierney was appointed as its new director general earlier this year. She joined from Serco Health, where she was business development director.
HMPO said it issued approximately 7 million passports every year.