Ministers have been urged to intervene after a mass outbreak at the DVLA’s offices in Wales, by a union declaring the government agency’s response a “scandal”.
More than 350 employees at the UK vehicle licensing agency’s contact centre in Swansea tested positive in the four months to December, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to above 500.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething is among several senior politicians to say he is “concerned about anecdotal reports” emerging from the offices – with the BBC and The Observer reporting that some symptomatic employees had been encouraged to return to work, amid an alleged “culture of fear”.
Both outlets also reported complaints that “archaic” IT systems meant many employees could not work from home, and that close contacts were not always sent home to self-isolate, with workers allegedly advised to turn off their Test and Trace apps to prevent notifications of an infection risk.
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For those who fell ill, absences of more than 10 days have triggered a warning, The Observer reported, citing a complaint received by Public Health Wales’s outbreak control team.
A DVLA spokesperson strenuously denied each of these allegations.
“It is a scandal that DVLA are not doing more to reduce numbers in the workplace when Covid infections are on the rise,” said Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) general secretary, Mark Serwotka.
“Our members are telling us they are scared to enter the workplace for fear of catching Covid-19.
“Ministers must intervene and ensure DVLA are doing their utmost to enable staff to work from home and temporarily cease non-critical services.”
Asked about Mr Serwotka’s warning and call for action at the top of government, a Department for Transport pointed to a DVLA statement and comments highlighting that there are no active cases inside the Swansea contact centre, with just four people currently self-isolating following a positive test across the 6,000-strong agency.
“Staff in roles that enable them to work from home are doing so and have throughout, in line with current government advice,” the DVLA statement said.
“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.”
A DVLA spokesperson said the agency had extensive safety measures in line with government advice and worked closely with Public Health Wales and local health and safety agencies.
It has opened an additional facility for on-site staff in Swansea, and workers are regularly reminded of the requirement to self-isolate if told to do so by the Test and Trace app, the spokesperson added.
“If people are on-site and you’re closer to other people than … at home, then obviously people are going to feel nervous,” a spokesperson told The Independent, “and the DVLA gets that, but that’s why it we take all the steps we have to keep the site as safe as we possibly can.”
He added: “We’re not disputing the figures [on cases], but this isn’t a mass walk-out, we haven’t got loads of people lying ill at home. This is an accumulated total.”
Asked whether the vast majority of the 352 employees who tested positive in the four months to December were now back at work, he said: “Yes, absolutely.”
Senedd mental health and wellbeing minister Eluned Morgan told BBC Radio Cymru that the Welsh government has “been worried about the DVLA for a while, now”, adding: “We've been putting pressure on them.
“It comes up time and again from the people who represent Swansea, and we're worried the pressure on people working there hasn't helped. The situation is one of the reasons why we've introduced new rules, new legislation, to tighten the restrictions on people at work.”
And Mr Gething added: “We're concerned about anecdotal reports we've heard from the trade union side, individuals, that all of the requirements weren't being followed.”
Swansea MP Carolyn Harris said told BBC Radio Wales that she was in “constant contact” with the DVLA during the first lockdown due to concerns raised by workers, but has “not been able to get hold of anyone” from the agency since Christmas.
“Last night I spent a long time trying to hold of the chief executive,” Ms Harris said. “Some of the stuff that I am now reading, and some of the stuff I've had in over the last 24 hours, really worries me.”
Watch: Covid-19 cases are falling in Wales, says First Minister Mark Drakeford