UK Passport Office accused of 'cavalier approach' to staff safety

Jamie Grierson and Rowena Mason
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The Home Office has been accused of contradicting government guidance on the coronavirus after it emerged that some Passport Office staff have been asked to return to work, after being reportedly told that 80% of the population will get infected and “we cannot hide away from it forever”.

Up to 2,000 workers at Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) are to be asked to be available to go back in to work, with plans to have 500 people in offices at any one time, according to the BBC.

The Home Office said it was adhering to Public Health England’s guidance by maintaining social distancing at passport offices and added there was no advice saying that you should only go to work if you are an “essential” or “key” worker.

What do the restrictions involve?

People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home

Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:

  • Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
  • Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
  • Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals

Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.

On a conference call on Tuesday, staff were told by the Home Office deputy scientific adviser, Rupert Shute, that 80% of people would get Covid-19 in the end.

According to a leaked transcript of a Zoom meeting seen by the BBC, Shute said: “You are no more at risk at the workplace as you would be in your home or at the supermarket. It is about minimising it.

“We are working on the assessment that 80% of us, if we haven’t already, will get the virus.” He added: “We cannot hide away from it forever.”

This mirrored earlier government briefings, but the position was overtaken when computer modelling suggested a lockdown would be needed to reduce infections.

Myrtle Lloyd, chief operating officer at the Passport Office, was also on the call. She reportedly told staff the guidance did not mean they “should stay at home instead of delivering critical services”.

“What is also critical for us as a business is to have a manageable level of work in the system, so that when we start our recovery we are not overwhelmed by our demands,” she reportedly said.

Downing Street backed up the Home Office’s decision that the Passport Office was “adhering to public health advice” but appeared to contradict the view of the department’s deputy chief scientific adviser that people should not seek to hide away from the virus.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The government’s focus is on stopping the spread of the disease to protect the health service. I think you’ve heard on a daily basis from the chief scientific and medical officers they have been very, very clear on the need for people to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

He gave no view on whether the government agrees that 80% of the public will eventually contract coronavirus.

The Public and Commercial Services union raised concerns about the reports, and said it had been pressing managers across the civil service to close offices so people could work from home.

Its general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “It is absolutely scandalous that Her Majesty’s Passport Office are suggesting our members can go back into work during a pandemic to process routine passports.

“The cavalier approach to our members’ health and safety is shameful and ultimately puts them in greater danger of contracting Covid-19. We have already had members die as a result of contracting coronavirus, and pressured civil service managers in other departments to shut offices so staff can work from home.

“For the deputy chief scientific adviser at the Home Office to suggest that going into work does not put you at greater risk of contracting corona is extremely irresponsible and totally contradicts current government guidance. Processing passports is not critical work while we are in lockdown and international travel is practically non-existent due to the corona pandemic.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “Her Majesty’s Passport Office is fully adhering to public health advice across all our offices and adopting social distancing measures to keep both its staff and customers safe.

“It continues to operate at substantially restricted staffing levels with a significant number of people working from home where possible, and staff are prioritising emergency cases. Guidance is also available for people who are travelling into work.

“It was made clear in the meeting that 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.”

The Home Office added that government advice had been clear that people may travel for work purposes, if they could not work from home.