Raft of services warn of delays as union boss claims civil service is functioning ‘well’ from home


A host of government departments are still unable to carry out a number of crucial services, despite a civil service union boss’ claim that Whitehall staff are functioning ‘very effectively’ from home. 

Foreign nationals looking for a faster decision on their visa or settlement application are told on the Home Office website that such procedures are ‘currently suspended because of coronavirus’.

Similarly, there are notices that passport offices are closed, face-to-face Parole Board hearings are suspended and interviews at Jobcentre Plus shouldn’t be attended.

The DVLA, meanwhile, is also warning that paper applications for driving licences ‘will take longer to process’. 

It comes amid Boris Johnson’s call for civil servants to return to the office, having set a target of four in five workers to be back at desks each week by the end of the month.

Mandarins are also being asked to provide weekly figures on staff numbers to monitor progress, as the Prime Minister spearheads a desperate bid to rescue the economy, after GDP has plummeted as a result of the crisis.  

However, Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents managers and professionals in public service, said there has been an ‘industrial revolution’ towards home working, while another trade body said it was considering strike action against the Government’s plans. 

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents managers and professionals in public service, said there has been an ‘industrial revolution’ towards home working

Foreign nationals looking for a faster decision on their visa or settlement application are told on the Home Office website that such procedures are 'currently suspended because of coronavirus'

Foreign nationals looking for a faster decision on their visa or settlement application are told on the Home Office website that such procedures are ‘currently suspended because of coronavirus’

Another government notice reads: 'Because of coronavirus, you cannot book an appointment at a passport office'

Another government notice reads: ‘Because of coronavirus, you cannot book an appointment at a passport office’

While it is running remote hearings, all face-to-face Parole Board hearings have been suspended due to the pandemic

While it is running remote hearings, all face-to-face Parole Board hearings have been suspended due to the pandemic

Jobseekers are also told that interviews booked at Jobcentre Plus should not be attended because of coronavirus

Jobseekers are also told that interviews booked at Jobcentre Plus should not be attended because of coronavirus

The DVLA, meanwhile, is also warning that paper applications for driving licences 'will take longer to process'

The DVLA, meanwhile, is also warning that paper applications for driving licences ‘will take longer to process’

Covid shifts to the young: Two-thirds of UK’s new infections are in the under-40s

Two-thirds of new coronavirus infections in the UK are in the under-40s, while the rate among older people has fallen sharply in an ‘extraordinary’ shift.

The number of over-50s testing positive for Covid-19 now represents just a fifth of those nationwide, compared with three quarters in the spring.

Just three per cent are now made up of those over 80, down from 28 per cent six months ago, reported The Times.

The peak age range for infections is now in the 20s but for most of the pandemic it was in the 80s – sparking hope further restrictions can be reduced because it seems older people are voluntarily shielding.

One Government adviser has suggested a Swedish-style effort to keep workplaces open while advising older people to stay at home.

Professor Dame Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology, University College London, told BBC Radio 4: ‘This is indeed a critical moment. If you look at the data from PHE across the country, we are now seeing the highest number of detected infections in younger people aged 20-29 and also going up to 45.

‘On the one hand, the good news is we aren’t at the moment seeing the uptick in cases in hospitals and in deaths but of course that reflects where the transmission is going on.’

She added that it would be ‘incredibly important’ to continue to tell young people about the risks of transmitting coronavirus.

He told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘Trying to bring hundreds of thousands of people back on some kind of rota basis that you’re enforcing from the top is ineffecient and ineffective when the civil service is actually working very effectively remotely just now.

‘If you look at what’s happened over the last six months, as well as transforming themselves into home-based service, the civil service has had to transform its priorities. 

‘It had to deal with a six-fold increase in Universal Credit, had to develop the furlough scheme to support nine million workers, all while it was 95% home-based. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it’s less effective.

‘Do you think you’re going to lecture the private sector about what’s efficient? Are they simply going to say ‘this has been working, but because civil servants are coming back into Whitehall, we’re going to tell our staff they’ve got to come back even though it’s working for us now’?

‘This idea that the government is going to lecture the private sector about what’s good for it, and virtue signal with the civil service is a fool’s errand. 

‘There has been this industrial revolution and ministers have just let that pass them by and instead have these pronouncements on high, dreaming of rotas in cabinet about how civil servants are going to get back to the office.’  

Mr Penman also accused the government of trying to ‘shame’ workers through coverage of how few have been commuting in to return to desks via the media.  

Twitter users appeared to have had a different experience, however, with many complaining of delays and warning that suspending crucial services could result in serious ramifications.

One wrote: ‘I hope you will reconsider putting [the ‘super priority service’ to get a faster decision on a visa] back soon though; the time between the expiration of the Tier 2 Visa and the start of application for ILR (indefinite leave to remain) is quite tight. 

‘Some keyworkers will be unemployed if they wait for your standard processing.’

Another said they’d had to wait up to 13 weeks to hear back from the DVLA over a licence renewal, claiming ‘it’s just taking ages’.

Meanwhile, priorities were questioned by another user from Milton Keynes, who said: ‘Pubs and restaurants are open but the passport office is closed? Make it make sense.’

At the beginning of lockdown there were 423,000 civil servants employed full time by Whitehall departments.

Permanent secretaries were given instructions last night to ‘move quickly’ to ‘bring more staff back into the office’, taking advantage of the return to schools and increased public transport services.

In a letter to all Whitehall ministries and seen by the Mail, Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief Alex Chisholm said the Prime Minister has ‘made clear his aim is to get as many people back to workplaces as possible’ in a safe way.

At a Cabinet meeting earlier this week, they said ministers had agreed that ‘increasing both the number of people in the office and the amount of time those people spend in the office’ would be ‘hugely beneficial’ for the civil service.

‘The Prime Minister is also clear that getting more people back into work in a Covid secure way will improve the public services we deliver, and will also provide a significant boost to the local economies where they are based,’ they added.

The Prime Minister set a target of four in five workers to return to Whitehall each week by the end of the month

The Prime Minister set a target of four in five workers to return to Whitehall each week by the end of the month

A graph shows how the United Kingdom's GDP has plummeted this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic

A graph shows how the United Kingdom’s GDP has plummeted this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic

One concerned Twitter user wrote: 'I hope you will reconsider putting [the 'super priority service¿ to get a faster decision on a visa] back soon though; the time between the expiration of the Tier 2 Visa and the start of application for ILR (indefinite leave to remain) is quite tight. 'Some keyworkers will be unemployed if they wait for your standard processing'

One concerned Twitter user wrote: ‘I hope you will reconsider putting [the ‘super priority service’ to get a faster decision on a visa] back soon though; the time between the expiration of the Tier 2 Visa and the start of application for ILR (indefinite leave to remain) is quite tight. ‘Some keyworkers will be unemployed if they wait for your standard processing’

Another said they'd had to wait up to 13 weeks to hear back from the DVLA over a licence renewal, claiming 'it's just taking ages'

Another said they’d had to wait up to 13 weeks to hear back from the DVLA over a licence renewal, claiming ‘it’s just taking ages’

Meanwhile, priorities were questioned by another user from Milton Keynes, who said: 'Pubs and restaurants are open but the passport office is closed? Make it make sense.'

Meanwhile, priorities were questioned by another user from Milton Keynes, who said: ‘Pubs and restaurants are open but the passport office is closed? Make it make sense.’

The letter warned that the huge numbers of civil servants working from home had led to a ‘reduced level of social interaction among our colleagues, with the loss of some of the spontaneous interaction and cross fertilisation between teams that drives innovation and sustained common purpose’.

It added: ‘There have also been challenges with bringing on board new or inexperienced colleagues and limitations in the ability to mentor and develop our people.

‘In short, it is the Government’s view that on the whole there are significant benefits to be gained from working collaboratively in an office environment and where possible colleagues should now return to the office in line with Covid-secure levels.’

The civil service heads said the aim is for 80 per cent of staff to ‘attend their usual workplace each week’ by using a rota system that will see some come in for only two or three days. 

In a letter to all Whitehall ministries Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief Alex Chisholm said the Prime Minister's 'aim is to get as many people back to workplaces as possible' in a safe way

In a letter to all Whitehall ministries Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief Alex Chisholm said the Prime Minister’s ‘aim is to get as many people back to workplaces as possible’ in a safe way

The push is a victory for the Mail, which has called for more civil servants to go back to their desks to set an example for the rest of the country. 

In a sign that action is finally being taken, Home Office staff were told yesterday that they would be expected back promptly.

The department’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft said it would enable them to carry out a ‘full and effective performance’.

The Mail has continued to monitor staffing levels across Whitehall, with as few as 5 per cent of staff turning up to work at ministries this week.

As millions of pupils returned to classrooms this week, it was likely to be a busy week at the offices of the Department for Education, which accommodated up to 2,000 staff before the pandemic.

Yet only 103 staff arrived at its seven-floor headquarters on Tuesday and 120 on Thursday – accounting for just six per cent of capacity. 

At the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where 1,800 staff usually work, the number of staff just broke into triple figures. 

In response, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union said today it would be willing to consider strike action after confirming it opposed the plans.

In a statement, the union said: ‘Our members have kept the country running during the pandemic while working from home and we believe it is not safe to return to workplaces while Covid-19 infection rates remain high and given the likelihood of a second wave in the coming weeks.

‘We are asking departments to provide, as a matter of urgency, for each building the Covid-secure limit, current staffing in each building and current risk assessment for each building.’

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka added: ‘If the Government or any employer starts forcing people back to work and we believe that it is not safe to do so we will firstly consider our legal options, secondly give individual legal advice, and thirdly consider whether a collective response is required.

‘As a last resort, if you have no other option and people’s health and safety is at risk, of course we would be prepared to consider industrial action.’

Its national executive committee is due to meet on Wednesday September 9 and will ‘decide how to respond’, the union said.

EXCERPTS FROM THE LETTER 

Dear Colleagues 

The Prime Minister is clear that getting more people back into work in a Covid-secure way will improve the public services we deliver, and will also provide a significant boost to the local economies where they are based.

We have seen a reduced level of social interaction among our colleagues, with the loss of some of the spontaneous interaction and cross-fertilisation between teams that drives innovation and sustained common purpose. 

There have also been challenges with bringing on board new or inexperienced colleges and limitations in the ability to mentor and develop our people, particularly those earlier in their careers. This is reportedly most acute for those without easy access to high-quality home-working facilities, for those in rented accommodation and for younger colleagues earlier in their careers. 

In short, it is the Government’s view that on the whole there are significant benefits to be gained from working collaboratively in an office environment and – where possible – colleagues should now return to the office in line with Covid-secure levels.

Alex Chisholm

Civil Service Chief Operating Officer

Sir Mark Sedwill

Cabinet Secretary 

Lockdown-free Sweden’s coronavirus case rate is now lower than Nordic neighbours Denmark and Norway with just 12 new infections per million people over the past week

Lockdown-free Sweden saw its coronavirus case rate drop below its Nordic neighbours Denmark and Norway today to just 12 new infections per million people over the past week.

In comparison, Norway saw 14 new infections per million people, and Denmark saw 18, meaning Sweden had an average case rate over seven days lower than its neighbours for the first time since March.

‘Sweden has gone from being one of the countries with the most infection in Europe, to one of those with the least infection in Europe,’ the country’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said at a press conference earlier this week.

Meanwhile, ‘many other countries have seen a rather dramatic increase,’ he added. 

At the height of the pandemic, Sweden’s infection rate dwarfed that of its neighbours, who did implement a lockdown.

For the first time since March, Sweden's infection rater per million people (12) dropped below that of its Nordic neighbours Denmark (18) and Norway (14)

For the first time since March, Sweden’s infection rater per million people (12) dropped below that of its Nordic neighbours Denmark (18) and Norway (14)

At the height of its pandemic (pictured in April), Sweden chose not to lock-down. Now, for the first time since March, its infection rate per one million people has dropped below that of its Nordic neighbours Denmark and Norway

At the height of its pandemic (pictured in April), Sweden chose not to lock-down. Now, for the first time since March, its infection rate per one million people has dropped below that of its Nordic neighbours Denmark and Norway

At its peak on June 19, Sweden was seeing 108 new infections per million people, compared to Denmark and Norway’s eight and three respectively.

The number of deaths in Sweden is now averaging at two to three per day, compared to a peak of over a hundred per-day it suffered in mid-April.

Furthermore, its capital Stockholm, the epicentre of Sweden’s pandemic during the peak months of April and May, registered its lowers number of cases since March last week.

In Stockholm, 250 of 14,000 people tested last week were infected with the virus, a positive rate of 1.8 percent. 

Meanwhile, Denmark registered 179 new cases on Friday, its highest daily total for more than four months. 

To add to positive signs in Sweden, a test last week of 2,500 randomly selected people found not one had coronavirus. 

In comparison, in a similar test, 0.9 per cent were found to have the virus at the end of April and 0.3 per cent at the end of May.

Announcing the results on Thursday, Dr Tegnell’s deputy at the Public Health Agency of Sweden, Karin Tegmark Wisell, said: ‘We interpret this as meaning there is not currently a widespread infection among people who do not have symptoms.’

Lockdown-free Sweden has been controversial for its liberal attitude to controlling the pandemic, preferring instead to let run through the population to create a ‘herd immunity’. 

But the country’s latest figures may silence some of its critics, and will come as a relief to those who advocated for the approach and came under fire in May as the country saw the highest per-capita death rate in the world for a period. 

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