Staff who work in the UK parliament are demanding guidance on how to deal with thousands of visitors and potential security threats during the coronavirus crisis.
It comes amid growing disquiet among 650 MPs and more than 3,000 support staff over how to keep parliament functioning without shutting out the public they are meant to serve.
At least three Whitehall departments – HM Revenue and Customs, the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office – are testing out systems which would allow thousands of staff to work from home for several months at a time.
A letter from Prospect union, GMB and PCS unions to the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, has asked for “clear guidance” on how parliamentary staff including tourists guides and security guards can minimise the risk of infection.
Ken Gall, chair of the joint union committee across parliament, wrote that there were many unanswered questions from parliament’s 3,000 staff which must be addressed urgently. In a leaked email to the Speaker circulated to other members of the House of Commons Commission, he wrote:
We believe that all staff are entitled to clear guidance from their employer during what is an almost unprecedented situation.
Is parliament intending to allow visits to continue? If so, what measures are you taking to assure and protect those staff who will be in close proximity to those visitors? Is it possible to get some bespoke advice from health professionals specifically for security staff/visitor assistants/catering?
What realistic steps can you take to minimise the risk of infection for those whose role means they cannot work from home? For example, are there measures that could be taken to reduce the potential contact with visitors for security guards that do not compromise the security of the house?
Will you confirm that any staff who are advised to stay at home as a precaution, as a result of infection, to care for someone else (such as children in the event of school closure), or as a result of some or all services being suspended or cancelled will not suffer financially?
Max Freedman, the chair of Unite’s parliamentary branch, which represents MPs’ staff, told the Guardian that his members should be allowed to work from home.
“MPs may wish to carry on as normal, but House of Commons authorities must explain why they aren’t allowing staff to work remotely – something that can be done with minimum disruption – to stop further spread within a large and mobile workplace. MPs should also allow staff to work remotely particularly if they are at increased risk,” he said.
At least three government departments have told some staff to work remotely on Friday in preparation for asking thousands of civil servants to stay away from central London offices if the disease spreads dramatically, Whitehall sources have confirmed.
As Number 10 begins preparations for allowing most civil servants to work from home, some staff at the Department of Health and Social Care and the Cabinet Office have been told to stay away but continue to work, sources said. Parts of HMRC are preparing to close on Monday and Tuesday, sources said.
Dave Penman, the head of the FDA union, which represents the most senior civil servants in Whitehall, said his members are seeking a delicate balance between public access and staff safety.
Every day, people travel from all over the world to visit parliament, not just the parliamentarians and their staff. Whilst the desire to keep parliament open to the public is understandable, there needs to be a recognition that it is also a workplace, for thousands of people who could be vulnerable to the virus or have friends and relatives who are vulnerable.