Disruption in the public sector


Lauren Stanton details how Covid continues to affect work practices

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Image by Tim Dennell

By Lauren Stanton

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed all Covid-19 restrictions in England on 24 February 2022, however, this did not signal the end of Britain’s struggles with the impact of coronavirus.

Many industries and individual organisations, including the DVLA, are experiencing an enormous backlog of applications which accumulated over lockdown. 3,400 of the agency’s 6,200 staff stayed at home and were unable to work during the first lockdown, which meant that incoming driving licence applications and renewals were delayed in being processed. Additional social distancing measures and isolating staff members due to illness and close contacts of the virus also contributed to delays. This has led to an enormous backlog of applications, sparking frustration amongst the public and, in some cases, damaging livelihoods. This has become a warning to the public that the effect of Covid is far from over, as organisations are still attempting to recover despite the government’s elimination of restrictions and advice to return to life as ‘normal’.

When lockdown was announced in March 2020 in the UK, staff were forced to stay at home to stop the spread of coronavirus. DVLA offices were left empty and the staff were unable to access the application systems from home, which led to them being placed on paid special leave. The lack of investment in public sector organisations such as the DVLA has meant that out-dated systems were still in use, which proved to be a significant barrier during lockdown as staff could not work from home. This is in stark contrast to much of the private sector, which faced an easier transition to working from home due to their advancements in using innovative “work from home” technologies and software. Applications to the DVLA were steadily incoming, yet the workforce simply was not there to deal with them. An investigative journalist for The Times revealed, through engaging with managers and co-workers at a DVLA office in February 2022 that staff were spending their time relaxing and watching Netflix, whilst the work continued to build up and remain unresolved.

Emerging out of lockdown proved to be another difficulty for the agency. The DVLA spent £6m on making its offices “Covid-secure”, ensuring that desks were appropriately socially distanced so that staff could make an impactful return to work and begin dealing with driving licence applications and renewals. In the past year, however, employees have striked for 58 days over Covid safety fears, despite the agency’s significant investment in preventing the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, frustrated members of the public continue to receive the seemingly blanket excuse of coronavirus to explain the reason for their application not being processed.

During the pandemic, many people quit the workforce or completely changed their career choices. As a result of this, organisations are facing significant problems in recruiting staff such as HGV drivers and waiters in hospitality sectors. The end of financial support during the pandemic, alongside limited numbers of staff, have both been observed to contribute to the recent rise in the cost of living. According to a Covid social study performed by University College London, the UK population is now more worried about their finances than catching coronavirus. This points to the fact that the UK has not emerged from the pandemic unharmed, as Covid is continuing to impact our everyday lives not just as an illness but as a financial struggle.

Many other professions have striked since the government announced the end to the pandemic, perhaps suggesting that individuals are focused on how to improve their work life since Covid, or maybe highlighting how non-health professions have been ignored in the past two years. 68 UK Universities have faced UCU strike action over pension cuts, race, gender and disability pay gaps and the impact of work on their mental health, with staff experiencing work-related stress and probable signs of depression. Covid is not over yet and we are constantly being reminded of this by its disruptive effect on everything we engage with in our daily lives. Thousands of barristers also went on strike on 11 April 2022 over a pay dispute. The legal sector has seen low pay causing an increasing number of lawyers reconsidering their career options. For example, in the past five years, the number of criminal barristers has dropped by a quarter. This increase in strike action shows the impact of Covid, as with the pandemic forcing the majority of the population to stay at home, people have reconsidered their careers and what they want to get out of them.

It is also necessary to pay attention to the prevalence of Covid in the population and realise that the pandemic is still here with us. Rising Covid cases in Shanghai has meant the city has been placed on the strictest lockdown measures seen as a result of the pandemic so far. England is still reporting high Covid cases, with a seven-day average of 24,997 (as of 20 April). However, with Covid testing kits no longer being provided to the public for free from 1 April 2022, it is expected that case statistics will drop as people test less regularly and do not realise that they are carrying the virus, whilst it continues to circulate within the population. Whilst the government may have announced the end of the pandemic , we are constantly being reminded of Covid through the struggles of organisations we rely upon in our daily lives.