HM Revenue and Customs has closed three of its offices where staff had developed Covid-19 symptoms for deep cleaning, after agreeing with the PCS union to come up with a formal protocol on how to respond to coronavirus outbreaks among staff.
Trinity Bridge House in Salford, where a member of staff died after being sent home from work with apparent coronavirus symptoms, along with St Clare House in Ipswich and Plas Gororau in Wrexham, will all be closed for a week.
The action comes after several days of negotiations between PCS, HMRC and the Cabinet Office, in which the union has called for any tax offices where front line key workers are based to be closed if there are suspected or confirmed outbreaks of Covid-19 among staff.
In particular, PCS had been urging managers to close the Salford office, with union reps saying in a letter to HMRC last week that a member at the branch had died a week after being sent home “exhibiting the symptoms of Covid-19” and later confirming he had a high temperature.
They said a second union member had died at Peterlee HMRC in County Durham from a suspected case of the virus.
The Trinity House office closure came as part of a general agreement between HMRC and PCS, in which the two have agreed to carry out talks to come up with a formal protocol on how to deal with coronavirus outbreaks.
Shortly after the agreement was reached, HMRC said it would close the two offices in St Clare House and Plas Gororau.
PCS revenue and customs group secretary Martin Kelsey said: “The willingness of HMRC to take urgent action in these two cases, is a positive sign for the negotiations which begin this week, aimed at reaching an agreement on handling future serious incidents.”
Thirty-five HMRC offices have already been closed because they are not required during the coronavirus outbreak, and 50,000 employees are working from home in compliance with government guidelines. However, some offices are required to stay open because they are needed to provide critical customer services.
The protocol PCS and HMRC are in talks over aims to agree a definition of when a “serious incident” response is required at one of the remaining offices; provide for serious incident meetings between the department and union representatives; and ensure “all reasonably practicable steps” are taken, PCS said.
This may include closing entire sites in extreme circumstances where there is “no reasonable alternative”, it added.
“The protocol will be mindful of government advice and operational need, but will recognise that additional action may be needed, depending on the incident details,” the union said.
A HMRC spokesperson said staff at the three closed offices would be able to work from home until they reopened for business.
“We can also confirm that two HMRC staff members, one in our Salford office and one in our Peterlee office, have sadly passed away. Our sincere condolences go to their families and friends and we are offering support to their colleagues. It would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time,” the spokesperson said.
“Our frontline teams of key workers are doing a vital job to support the UK – protecting people’s livelihoods, keeping cash in businesses, helping people to stay employed, providing benefits for families and bringing in funds for essential services like the NHS."
They added: “We have a range of processes in place to protect our people at this time and these will be kept under continual review to ensure people’s safety going forward. We are following the guidance issued by the Government, the NHS and Public Health England and will continue to do so.”
The spokesperson said staff who do not need to be in the office are working from home, and offices that are open are following public health advice on staff safety, which they said is HMRC's "number one priority".