Leeds DWP office failed to enforce social distancing

By Tom Airey
BBC News

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  • Coronavirus pandemic

image copyrightHSE

image captionConcerns were raised over social distancing at the Department for Work and Pensions office in Leeds

A government office failed to do enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus, a health and safety inspection found.

Workers were pictured gathered around a desk at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in Leeds where there have been two confirmed Covid-19 cases.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found management had failed to ensure social distancing was maintained.

The DWP said it had taken “urgent action to rectify all issues identified” at the Quarry House office.

During the pandemic, the majority of DWP employees in Leeds have been working from home but there have still been hundreds of people in the office, located inside a landmark building on the eastern edge of the city centre.

There has been a recruitment drive at the DWP amid

a rise in Universal Credit claimants due to coronavirus, a whistleblower told the BBC.

image captionQuarry House in Leeds is known locally as “The Kremlin” because of its imposing architecture

The whistleblower has been working at home for the DWP but said he was concerned for his health when returning to the building, which is also home to parts of the NHS.

He said: “I hear stories about people congregating, not following outlaid guidance. In an office so big it is difficult to monitor 24/7.

“People I have spoken to are nervous about a return, they and I feel it is not yet safe enough to go back.

“The office was busy pre-Covid, I don’t know where everyone would operate from in normal times let alone in a virus outbreak.”

The HSE inspected the office on 27 August after receiving a report of a “workplace concern”. During the visit photographs were taken, including one of workers standing close together.

The report compiled following the inspection said: “You are failing to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of your employees/agency staff at work because you have not implemented necessary measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

The DWP had risk assessed for the office being about 50% full, which the HSE said “may be ambitious and unrealistic”, leading to a risk of “congestion” and making it more difficult to maintain social distancing.

What the report found

  • A line manager gave instruction to a group of staff around a desk, with staff not following social distancing
  • Walkways had been designated as two-way travel despite only being about a metre wide
  • Walkways passed closely to desks designated as usable
  • Stairwells were designated as two-way travel but did not appear to be sufficiently wide for 2m distancing – even at designated passing points
  • Small tables, “breakout pods” and benches lacked “do not use” signage.

The BBC has seen leaked messages showing the office has had at least two positive coronavirus cases among staff.

Two emails have recently been sent to workers saying people had been sent home from the affected floors and deep cleans carried out.

Charles Law, industrial officer with the PCS union, said: “It’s extremely worrying for our members who work for the department, especially if they’re expected to stop being at home and come into the workplace.

“It’s shocking that the HSE would do such a damning report on a flagship DWP office and we’re extremely concerned for the safety of our members.”

The HSE confirmed that following the visit an official letter, known as a Notification of Contravention, was sent to the DWP.

In this letter, the DWP was warned a fee would need to be paid because of “material breaches” of health and safety law.

It was given a deadline of Tuesday 15 September to confirm action had been taken to remedy the issues highlighted in the report.

In a statement, a DWP spokesperson said: “We take the health and safety of staff extremely seriously and have implemented Covid-secure measures across our sites to ensure they comply with government guidelines.

“We have taken urgent action to rectify all issues identified by the HSE.”

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