This morning's headlines have been dominated by news of a mass COVID-19 outbreak at the Swansea offices of the DVLA [the government’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency].
Due to the catastrophic irresponsibility of DVLA senior management, over 500 workers have been infected, making this the biggest workplace coronavirus outbreak so far in the UK.
Urgent action is needed to put a stop to this criminal negligence, which puts profits ahead of workers' lives.
DVLA staff have been raising concerns about safety for months. Most recently, DVLA management have pushed to get staff who were previously shielding back to work. This came only weeks after a mass outbreak at the Llansamlet Contact Centre.
This scandal occurred because of pressure from the very top of the government. This includes Tory transport minister Grant Schapps, who is now being grilled for his role in forcing civil servants back to work in unsafe conditions.
On the shop floor, this pressure meant that some managers took it upon themselves to push for a return to work. In extreme cases, they broke official COVID safety guidelines.
One worker interviewed by the Guardian explained how this even included reckless actions such as getting workers to turn off the test-and-trace app on their phones, or purposefully ignoring reported symptoms.
UK Minister provokes 500 Covid cases at DVLA Swansea as symptomatic told to work, vulnerable refused home-working, Covid absences over 10 days trigger warnings & workers told turn off test-and-trace apps so phones don’t ping RESIGN @grantshapps 👎🏻 https://t.co/yURBp9eteM— Geraint Davies (@GeraintDaviesMP) January 23, 2021
Another worker explained that staff have been made to sit back-to-back, only one metre apart, with the bosses claiming that the two-metre rule doesn’t apply unless you're face to face.
The fact that this virus spreads via airborne droplets is of no importance to these unscrupulous bosses, who have been the first to stay at home. What matters to them is not the health of the workers, but the millions of pounds DVLA raises in revenue.
Fight for safety
Significant concessions have been won by the PCS DVLA branch, which represents 3000 members.
Already, earlier in the pandemic, 200 vulnerable workers had been sent to work from home. And many more who had been isolating, but who faced the prospect of having to return to the office, have instead been allowed to continue working from home.
Furthermore, following an outbreak in the Contact Centre, which closed the building for almost two weeks, all workers on that site are now being tested twice a week.
These concessions are all welcome. But clearly we need to keep organising and pushing to prevent any more outbreaks.
The number of staff on site needs to be reduced to the absolute minimum. Those who do need to come in must be prioritised in the vaccination programme. And a proper implementation of the two-metre safe distancing rule must be implemented.
As with those doing very similar jobs in other government-run offices, such as HMRC or DVSA, staff working from home need to be equipped with laptops and upgraded IT systems. This will prevent the development of further backlogs.
Such measures must be maintained until it is completely safe for everyone to return to work.
Bosses to blame
DVLA management must not be allowed to pin the blame on workers. For example, they expect staff to wear face masks, but they do not provide these or any other PPE. This means that staff sometimes have to make do with protection that is insufficient or unclean, making them vulnerable to the virus.
The DVLA have bought thousands of masks. Scandalously, however, management still refuses to distribute these to staff.
Another important issue at the moment involves work buses, which have been reduced dramatically. This means that some staff are forced to use two-or-more public buses to get to work; or to take taxis in order to avoid public transport.
The reason for this is a simple case of the bosses trying to save money. But the result is that both staff and the wider community risk increased exposure and infection, further spreading the virus.
This is unacceptable. Works buses must be reinstated to their original level immediately.
Section 44 walkout
If DVLA management does not budge, then the PCS branch should again discuss holding a vote to withdraw labour immediately, quoting the Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act. This legally allows workers to walk out of a dangerous workplace.
Earlier this month, primary school teachers across the country organised a walkout under the protection of this health and safety legislation, following a mass campaign by the National Education Union.
Similarly, the PCS branch at the DVLA should inform all members of their Section 44 rights. This must be accompanied by the demand that workers receive full pay for any absences related to COVID or Section 44, and that staff are not penalised in any way for refusing to work in unsafe conditions.
Put workers in control
Most importantly, as union members, we must address the root of this issue. This fiasco is the product of decades of chronic underfunding into the DVLA.
As a result, the department still uses outdated IT systems, some of which date back to the 1980s. This neglect means that staff working from home cannot access certain systems, due to compatibility issues, leading to greater pressures to come into the office to work.
The DVLA needs to be properly funded. A plan of development needs to be implemented, drawn up and overseen by DVLA workers themselves, organised in the union. Such a plan should prioritise the upgrading of IT systems, in order to allow working from home.
We know our workplace better than anyone. And we will know how to run it effectively, as a proper public service.
To do this, we need the strongest possible union organisation on the ground. Our PCS branch has experienced excellent growth recently. But we still need to focus on (at least) doubling the amount of union reps and activists as soon as possible.
The coming branch AGM will be a great opportunity to act on this. We encourage all members to attend and get involved.