Boris Johnson today vowed the Government is ‘working flat-out’ after a Covid outbreak at the DVLA headquarters.
More than 500 cases have been identified at the driving agency’s offices in Swansea between September and December last year after bosses allegedly told staff with symptoms to return to work.
It is thought to be Britain’s biggest workplace outbreak and has increased pressure on ministers, with critics claiming they have failed to protect workers.
The DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) has said claims staff with symptoms were told to work are ‘categorically untrue’.
More than 500 cases have been identified at the driving agency’s offices in Swansea between September and December last year
Mr Johnson was grilled about the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions today by Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East.
She asked: ‘Given that the Prime Minister has already said today he’ll take full responsibility for all the actions his Government has taken during the pandemic, will he confirm that this will include the woeful and reckless management of the Covid outbreak at the DVLA Government sites in my constituency?
‘And will he also ensure that his Transport Secretary (Grant Shapps) is held accountable for the inexcusable damage and devastation that this has caused?’
Mr Johnson responded: ‘We’ve been working flat-out on the problem at the DVLA and all staff who can work from home are doing so. Measures have been taken to minimise the number of people on the site at any one time.
‘And more than 2,000 tests have been carried out by the DVLA in the last fortnight alone with all the results so far coming back negative.’
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said that people have to obey the Covid rules set out in Wales.
He said: ‘I’ve written twice in just the last couple of weeks to ministers in the UK Government expressing concerns over the stories we have been hearing from frontline workers.
‘I was anxious to make sure that the UK Government understood that if you are working in Wales, it is the Welsh rules that you have to obey and only last week, we strengthened protections in the workplace further for people in light of the new variant of the virus.
‘I wasn’t satisfied with the first reply that I got, I felt there was a gap between what ministers were telling us and what we were hearing from people who work at the frontline in the DVLA.
‘I’ve had a further reply, we will have to make sure that all the safeguards that the law requires in Wales are in place and that the DVLA is being organised and run in a way that puts the safety of its staff at the forefront of what it does given the public health emergency that we’re living through.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has faced scrutiny over the Covid outbreak in Swansea
DVLA chief executive Julie Lennard, along with HR director Louise White, also faced questions from MPs on Westminster’s Transport Committee on the issue.
A number of employees, including those classed as vulnerable, say they were still told to come into the office while millions of others stayed at home, due to the ‘essential nature’ of its public services.
Furthermore, DVLA workers claim they were told to turn off their mobile test-and-trace apps to avoid phones pinging while in the office, the Guardian reported.
The agency insists that while there have been 535 cases at the Welsh site since the start of the pandemic in March, there are currently no positive tests among its workforce at the contact centre – where hundreds of workers deal with thousands of calls from motorists every day – and just four cases across the whole estate.
A large number of the positive cases are understood to have occurred just before Christmas, when transmission infection rates were high in the Swansea area, and a bleak nationwide picture forced millions to cancel their festive plans.
Around 6,000 people are employed at the site, meaning some nine per cent of the workforce have been infected at one time or another.
Reports also claim that Covid-related absences have been counted against employees’ sick leave, with a warning triggered if that then lasts more than 10 days.
Workplace safety network, The Hazards Campaign, said it was ‘absolutely shocking’ a government agency was responsible for what is thought to be the UK’s biggest work-based outbreak, while the Public and Commercial Services Union called on Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to take action.
General secretary Mark Serwotka told the Guardian: ‘It is a scandal that DVLA are not doing more to reduce numbers.
‘Ministers must intervene and ensure DVLA are doing their utmost to enable staff to work from home and temporarily cease non-critical services.’
A DVLA spokesman said: ‘Staff safety remains a priority for DVLA, as it has throughout the pandemic, and we continue to follow all relevant guidance and advice to help keep our offices Covid secure, including the latest advice from Welsh Government.
‘Staff in roles that enable them to work from home are doing so and have throughout, in line with current government advice.
‘However, in view of the essential nature of the public services we provide, some operational staff are required to be in the office where their role means they cannot work from home.’
On the claims that staff with symptoms were told to return to work, A DVLA spokesperson added: ‘There is absolutely no truth in the claims that staff with symptoms are encouraged to come into work and that staff have been told to turn off their track and trace app.
‘The government guidelines are clear – where a person has symptoms or is alerted by track and trace that they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, they must self-isolate as required. We regularly remind staff of this requirement.’