HM Passport Office has agreed to temporarily pause its plans to reopen two offices and increase staffing levels at five other bases after an outcry over the safety of workers.
The civil service’s biggest union reacted with fury after it emerged that the Home Office agency had plans for up to 2,000 staff to return to non-essential work during the Covid-19 lockdown – with the department’s deputy chief scientific officer Rupert Shute coming under particular fire.
PCS was incensed by a leaked video-conference involving HMPO bosses and staff representatives that included claims attributed to Shute that staff were “no more at risk at the workplace as you would be in your home or at the supermarket”.
Union leaders called on Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft to clarify the department’s policy on keeping staff safe from coronavirus and to distance the department from views on exposure to the virus said to have been expressed by the deputy chief scientific adviser.
This week PCS said it had succeeded in securing a temporary halt in HMPO’s plans to get staff back to work on routine tasks, which would have seen the reopening of its Belfast and Newport offices and increases workers at five other sites which had remained open with skeleton staffing during the coronavirus lockdown.
“We've listened to the concern from our members across HMPO and the wider Home Office,” the union said in a statement.
“They have told us that they understand and support the department in delivering essential services at this time of national crisis.
“But they have also told us that they find it extremely difficult to understand why, when we are seeing the highest fatality rate in Europe, their employer considers this a time to take wholly unnecessary risks with their health and well-being.”
PCS said the Home Office had told it HMPO had decided to “defer” its plans for a short period to “enable further discussions” with the union and staff.
It said the Home Office insisted move would “ensure that all concerns about safety measures, whether that be for the office environment or for travel into the office, have been aired, responded to and addressed where necessary”.
PCS said it had asked the Home Office to give numbers of people expected back in each of the main eight Passport Office sites this week.
“We expect the number of staff from HMPO, Sopra Steria and agencies to be the absolute minimum necessary to deal only with critical work, such as genuinely urgent and compassionate cases,” it said. “Not routine passports and marriage certificates.”
A Home Office spokesperson said HMPO was “fully adhering to public health advice across all offices” and adopting social distancing measures to keep both its staff and customers safe.
“HMPO continues to prioritise emergency cases but has decided to briefly defer the phased return of people to its offices to allow sites to be independently assessed for further reassurance,” they said.
“The government’s priority is slowing the spread of coronavirus and we all have a part to play in order to protect the NHS and save lives.”
HMPO said it was continuing to operate at “substantially restricted” staffing levels with emergency cases being prioritised, and that it had a “significant number” of people working from home.
It said the phased return of staff to HMPO offices would take place once the third-party assessment work was complete.