DVLA managers 'failed to understand severity' of deadly Covid outbreak
The government agency responsible for the country’s largest workplace outbreak initially failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation as the virus spread through its offices, with public health officials identifying a litany of inadequacies and failings.
A damning briefing by Swansea Bay University Health Board, compiled last week and seen by the Observer, shows officials were forced to serve a formal health protection notice requiring the DLVA to cooperate with the incident-control team as infections started to rise in the agency’s Swansea offices in October. It also emerged last week that one DVLA worker, who tested positive for Covid, had died.
The briefing, written by the board’s executive director of public health, Keith Reid, notes: “there was reported initial difficulty in engaging with DVLA management and in getting senior management to understand the seriousness of the situation.”
Carolyn Harris, the MP for Swansea East, whose constituency includes the agency’s offices in the city, said the briefing showed the crisis, which the Observer revealed has seen more than 500 staff test positive since September, had been mishandled by the DVLA. “They didn’t invite Public Health Wales and the council in. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming,” she said. “They have overseen a diabolical and outrageous situation, which has put people in danger.”
Boris Johnson was forced to defend the agency’s response in the House of Commons last week, insisting that numbers on site were being minimised. The DVLA’s chief executive Julie Lennard had to publicly apologise after providing misleading case numbers to MPs. The latest revelations will pile more pressure on transport secretary Grant Shapps to explain how an agency he is ultimately in charge of has managed the outbreak.
According to the briefing, public health officials identified “a number of deficiencies in compliance with legal requirements to maintain physical distancing” including in the buildings, smoking shelters and buses arranged by the agency.
The incident-control team found that the DVLA was running a 24-hour-a-day shift system, with hot-desking. Staff were gathering around scanning equipment and face coverings were not appropriate. Officials were especially concerned about workers catching Covid while travelling into work on DVLA buses in October. But the briefing claims that the agency failed to provide the team with the contact details of 11 staff who had travelled on a bus with a colleague who tested positive for Covid. It also details allegations from the bus company that it had been told there was “a threat over the ongoing contract” with DVLA if it implemented control measures. The DVLA denied the allegations.Staff 'pressured to go back to work' in breach of UK Covid rules Read more
The Observer reported concerns last weekend that staff feared warnings if they were off work too long. The briefing also picks up on these worries saying “staff were frightened to stay away from work due to the sickness policy”.
Public health officials even had to remind DVLA it was responsible for managing the cleaning contract in November. The briefing reports officials on a site visit raised “concerns that cleaning was inadequate and that DVLA were not following up on this.”
By December, as cases surged, staff were still complaining about the numbers on each shift, lack of dedicated desks, proximity of seats, as well as overcrowding in the breakout areas and lifts. They incident-control team considered serving an improvement notice on DVLA due to: “the slow rate of improvement in implementation of appropriate control measures”.
Huw Merriman, chair of the transport select committee, which held a session on the outbreak last week, described figures provided by the agency as “rather misleading” because they implied the cases stretched all the way back to March. In fact, only 11 cases were identified between March and September. Lennard told the committee: “I apologise if that was misleading.”
Harris said that the outbreak was ultimately the responsibility of Shapps. “Even if DVLA are culpable, the buck stops with the secretary of state for transport. He’s either taken his eye off the ball or he has put DVLA under pressure to deliver on targets, which has led to this situation.”
PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “We are deeply concerned and saddened following the news of a staff member dying at DVLA. There must be a full investigation into the circumstances. There is no doubt that insisting more than 2,000 DVLA staff go into work every day is a recipe for further Covid cases and that increases the possibility of further deaths.”
Sion Lingard, a Public Health Wales consultant, who led the agency’s response, said the system of controls at the DVLA had improved since the health protection notice was served.
A DVLA spokesperson said: “We are greatly saddened by the death of a valued member of the DVLA family. Our thoughts go out to his family and all those who were close to him.
“Staff safety has always been our utmost priority throughout the pandemic. We have worked very closely with Public Health Wales, Swansea Environmental Health and the Swansea Bay Health Board during regular site visits and inspections, and have implemented or exceeded the recommendations made.”