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Omicron: Ministers risk ‘endangering’ civil servants unless home working becomes default, union warns

Ministers risk a “dereliction of duty” unless they move to make working from home the default position for civil servants where they can in a bid to combat the spread of the omicron Covid variant, Whitehall’s biggest union has warned.

In a shift in its stance on the issue, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is today calling on Downing Street to change course – warning a failure to implement the measure would “endanger” the health and safety of public servants who have fought to deliver vital services during the pandemic.

Boris Johnson’s government has been increasing the number of civil servants in workplaces since the summer – when work-from-home guidance was axed as restrictions were lifted – but the intervention by PCS represents a blow to those efforts.

The union, senior representatives of which are expected to press Cabinet Office officials on the issue at a meeting on Thursday, is also calling for additional protections. It wants to ensure there is social distancing and mask-wearing when people move around the workplace, for those civil servants who still need to go in.

It comes amid growing concern about the emergence of omicron – which scientists believe could be more transmissible than the dominant delta variant, and evade the vaccines more – with 22 cases identified in the UK as of Tuesday.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told The Independent: "With the presence of [the] omicron variant now confirmed, it is vital that the government takes measures to protect civil servants.

"The default position should be that civil servants work from home where they can and that social distancing and mask wearing should be re-introduced when people move around the workplace.

"Leading scientists have repeatedly said home working dramatically reduces the transmission rate for the virus. It is therefore incumbent on ministers to heed the warning signs and re-introduce home working for all civil service staff who can do so. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty and endangering the health and safety of public servants who have worked hard during the pandemic to deliver vital services."

Downing Street has so far resisted pressure to alter working from home guidance, with the prime minister’s spokesman saying it is up to employers to decide on "the right balance".

However, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has encouraged people to work from home where possible in response to the new variant. In Wales, employers are also being encouraged to let people work from home. And even before the emergence of omicron, Northern Ireland’s health minister said those working from home during the first Covid wave "should be working from home" again.

Until now, PCS – which has more than 180,000 members and is the largest trade union representing civil servants in the UK – has not opposed the re-introduction of some office working for civil servants since July’s easing of restrictions.

“We’ve said that we are in favour of what’s called ‘hybrid working’ in a general sense but we’ve made it clear, from our point of view, that there should be a question of maximum choice for individuals and for them to work out their regime with their manager locally,” a PCS spokesman said, explaining the union’s position to date.

“What we have got a difficulty with is the view of some government departments, but not all of them, that they’ve got to have a rigid regime that they’ve got to control from the top.”

The government’s drive to get civil servants back into the office last year – when Whitehall bosses were ordered to get 80 per cent of staff to go in at least once a week – was scuppered by the second Covid wave.

Since 19 July, when the nationwide work-from-home guidance was dropped, the government has sought to strike a more nuanced approach to the issue. Government departments have been able to dictate their own individual parameters, with hybrid home and office working commonplace across Whitehall – although attendance rates are understood to vary.

In an apparent effort to get more civil servants back to their desks, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm wrote to chief operating officers in departments and agencies earlier this month inviting them to take steps to increase workers attending the office.

It comes after Mr Chisholm, who also serves as chief operating officer for the civil service, told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee in September that assumptions about attendance were “not fixed”. He added that allowing home working longer term was likely to save the civil service money and improve their working across regions of the UK.

Mandarins have sought to balance the needs of team building with the flexibility that civil servants could now expect to enjoy in the private sector.

“I want to serve the government of the day to the best of my ability. That’s helped by keeping talented staff happy, as well as understanding why ministers want to be able to have face-to-face discussions with policy experts,” one senior civil servant said.

“Some staff members are jittery about how the new variant could impact their plans to see family after they’ve spent a lot of time apart,” they added. “It’s hard for me to argue against working from home for them if they are performing well.”

The picture of home working in Whitehall and around the UK varies between departments. The Cabinet Office has a relatively high level of workers attending the office each day, according to people familiar with its operations. At the Treasury, insiders say it varies from team to team, but that large numbers of staff are required to work in the office, rather than remotely, given their access to economic data that could prove market sensitive.

According to people with knowledge of the different departments’ offices, attendance rates are far lower for the Department of International Trade and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The location and role of individual civil servants also appears to have a major influence. Outside of London, in Liverpool and Newcastle, civil servants told The Independent that their managers had been flexible about home working. This contrasts with staffers in ministers’ private offices who it is understood expected attend the office whenever ‘the principal’ – Whitehall jargon for the minister or secretary of state – is in the building.

Meanwhile civil servants in Northern Ireland and Scotland are following advice to work from home where possible, following the guidance of their devolved administrations.

“Encouragement from ministers to return to the office has been rising – and lots of civil servants have wanted to get back to face-to-face work too,” said Alex Thomas, a programme director at think tank, the Institute for Government, reflecting the situation since ‘Freedom Day’ in July.

“Those officials working most closely with ministers have felt more pressure to be physically present, but how acute that is still depends a lot on the department and individual ministers,” he added.

The government has been contacted for comment.