Get the latest on coronavirus. Sign up to the Daily Brief for news, explainers, how-tos, opinion and more.
Reopening jobcentres in England on Wednesday could create a “perfect storm” as staff and claimants face a “real risk” of coronavirus, according to the main union representing Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff.
A study by the PCS union showed widespread concerns among jobcentre staff over insufficient space in the workplace to ensure two-metre social distancing between staff and customers and a lack of personal protective equipment for staff.
Of the 1,764 jobcentre staff surveyed, 84% said they would not feel safe if front-facing activity with claimants was increased, while 65% said they did not believe there would be enough space in their workplace for two-metre social distancing rules to be implemented.
More than half (59%) reported they felt going to their workplace would put them in “serious or imminent danger”.
The DWP has said that “staff and customer safety is our priority” and that sites were being “adapted to ensure they are Covid-19 safe”.
It added it was fitting screens and social distancing signage, and providing masks and hand sanitisation facilities.
PCS union warned that the problem would be significantly compounded by the approximately 2.5 million new claimants of Universal Credit who will be “navigating a system that few of them have experience of”.
Real concerns about job centre reopening without proper safety checks combined with an ideological insistence on reintroducing sanctions at the same time – what could possibly go wrong? https://t.co/k0NqKjMSH6
— PCS Union (@pcs_union) June 30, 2020
They added their Black and minority ethnic members in particular had “real worries” and that they did not believe “all the safeguards required to make jobcentres safe are in place”.
In a statement, the PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The government have made little attempt to make jobcentres safe for staff or claimants.
“A survey of our members has shown clearly they know it is not safe, with over half saying they felt they were in imminent danger of catching Covid-19.
“Our members have been working flat out throughout the pandemic and want to see a humane social security system fit for these unprecedented times and a safe workplace where they can help claimants access the support they need.”
Jobcentres in England are set to reopen this week for face-to-face appointments and assessments for benefits including Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments.
Sanctions on benefits have also returned after a three-month freeze, despite calls from the Labour Party to extend the ban amidst the backdrop of an “unemployment crisis looming”.
Although jobcentres have remained open during lockdown to provide services for people lacking phones or the internet, such as the homeless, DWP services have been running a significantly reduced service only for the vulnerable.
A representative of the welfare charity Turn2us told HuffPost UK they were “very concerned” that the reopening of jobcentres will “cause anxieties as well as putting people’s health at risk.”
Sara Willcocks, head of communications at Turn2us, said: “The health of our communities must be at the centre of any strategy to get back to business as usual.
“We urge the DWP to move forward cautiously with their plans to reopen centres and make sure they have put in place the necessary protection for jobcentre staff, social security claimants and the general public, before their doors open.
“We also ask that they extend the freeze on benefit sanctions and assessments. To do otherwise will only serve to detrimentally affect the most vulnerable among us.
“As people worry about the potential of increased exposure to the coronavirus, threatening to take away their incomes if they would rather not physically attend the jobcentre, may risk further worsening their mental health.”