Covid-19 has required the state to intervene to protect public health, jobs and businesses. But after a decade of austerity eroding the capacity of the state to respond to such crises, our civil servants have been tasked with delivering urgent support with reduced capacity and restricted resources. We naturally associate the term ‘key worker’ with our health and care workers who are in daily proximity with the virus – but teachers, bus drivers, posties and supermarket workers have also rightly received the recognition that they deserve for their role in keeping things going in our communities.
There has been much less recognition for our key workers within the civil service. Unlike the perception of civil servants as men in grey suits working in Whitehall – typified in BBC sitcom Yes, Minister – the reality is that the civil service is much more varied. Civil servants live in our communities and work locally in places such as our local JobCentre Plus, court service or tax office. Given my experience of working across the wider civil service, in a range of areas for over two decades before entering parliament, I cannot stress enough the diverse importance of the civil service in our response to this public health emergency.
The coronavirus pandemic has tasked civil servants with unprecedented challenges. Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC staff are under severe pressure – working around the clock to register new Universal Credit claimants and implement the government’s economic support schemes. Civil servants are also on the frontline: Border Force employees are at risk of infection from foreign flights, while Ministry of Justice’s staff are at risk working in HM Prison Service, for example. Sadly, civil servants across different departments have lost their lives to Covid-19, and our thoughts are with their families.
We must remember the context in which the civil service is responding to these challenges. In the past ten years of the Conservatives’ austerity agenda, many of these key workers were considered ‘back office’ staff and suffered job cuts, real-terms pay cuts and sustained attacks on their pensions. Analysis undertaken by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has revealed that average civil service pay has fallen by between 9% and 11% compared to those in the rest of the public sector, working in health, education and local government. During this time, the cost of living has risen.
The result of the ideological commitment to small governance is a civil service with an underpaid, undervalued and understaffed workforce – and institutions with a reduced capacity to respond to urgent crises. According to the Institute for Government, 40% of DWP staff and 35% of those in the Department of Health and Social Care have been cut since 2010. PCS estimated that the DWP is at least 5,000 staff short of what it needs to meet demand during a ‘normal’ period – never mind during this crisis, in which we have seen a mass influx of Universal Credit claimants.
Austerity has led to the government constructing a civil service only through a per-unit cost lens – whether in relation to people or floor space – rather than acknowledging its collective social imperative and the social value it derives. And this can be seen in the response to Covid-19. Civil servant key workers lack the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and, in some cases, management are not enforcing social distancing and shielding guidance. Border Force staff are not being routinely provided with PPE, while HM Passport Office is trying to make non-essential staff return to their offices before lockdown is lifted.
Workers are not a commodity. PPE is not an optional extra for key workers, and those at high risk of complications from the virus must be protected. It is deeply concerning that guidance and support, which civil servants are helping to execute on behalf of the government, are not being adhered to by some areas of management within the civil service. The state should be leading by example during this public health crisis.
Key services must be delivered, but Michael Gove and the Cabinet Office must make staff health and safety the priority. This is not ‘business as usual’, and it is important that we do not return to the previous business as usual where key workers were taken for granted. One thing is for certain: the selfless work of those who believe in a decent society, and who have prioritised the safety of the collective, must be recognised. It is these workers who will be fundamental in rebuilding our economy after the Covid-19 crisis.