New Delhi: After a spate of Covid-19 cases in government offices, including Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar, the Department of Personnel and Training has informally told ministries to “not force” junior staff such as peons and personal assistants to come to office.
Department heads have been told only to get essential staff to come to office, and let others work from home. The DoPT is also finalising a work from home framework, and an order is expected to be issued soon. Joint secretaries and higher ranks, however, have to continue to come to office every day.
In a circular dated 5 June, the DoPT had asked ministries to rework the roster to ensure that not more than 20 staff members or officers are present in the office on any given day, and only asymptomatic persons are allowed to come to work. However, as cases spiked, officials started being actively discouraged from making junior staff, including personal staff who live far off, travel long distances and come to work.
Some department heads in Nirman Bhawan say they have been asked to work with just 10 per cent of the junior staff.
A source told ThePrint, “The DoPT secretary has spoken to all secretaries asking them to ensure reduced presence in office. Some department heads have also been told to ensure that no more than 10 per cent staff come to office on a given day though there is no official order on this. It has also been conveyed that if any staff member does not want to come to office and instead work from home, they should not be forced to report in person.”
However, DoPT spokesman Shambhu Chaudhry said mandatory attendance of 50 per cent of staff in government offices, according to the department’s 18 May guidelines, is still in place.
“There is no order to reduce attendance any further,” he said.
The 18 May guidelines said 50 per cent officers and staff needed to observe staggered timings in three shifts — 9 am to 5.30 pm, 9.30 am to 6 pm, and 10 am to 6.30 pm.
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Work from home framework
DoPT sources say that the department is in the final stages of firming up an order finalising a work from home policy.
“The draft framework was circulated last month and inputs sought from all ministries. It is now being firmed up by DoPT and an order will be issued soon,” a source said.
The WFH guidelines mandate the use of the government’s ‘e-office’ system — 75 ministries and departments are already using it, and 57 ministries and departments have achieved more than 80 per cent of their work on the system. They also advocate the use of the NIC video conferencing facility for meetings.
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Spate of cases
The number of Covid-19 cases in the national capital has spiked in the last few weeks — over 1,600 new cases were reported Tuesday, taking Delhi’s total past 42,800.
Several cases have been reported from government offices such as Nirman Bhawan, home to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The building was closed for a weekend for sanitisation, while several senior officials went into self-isolation and others roped off their doorways to keep visitors out.
There was also a spate of cases in the labour ministry as well as Rail Bhawan, while a top civil servant at North Block too tested positive.
Attendance in government offices had been skeletal through the 66-day lockdown that began on 25 March. However, as the ‘unlocking’ of the country began, employees gradually started to return, and that’s when the cases surged across government buildings.
The DoPT’s 5 June circular had stated: “Officers/staff residing in containment zone shall not come to office and work from home till containment zone is de-notified… Under-secretaries/deputy secretaries, if sharing cabin, then they will come alternate day (sic) to enforce social distancing.
“The section shall not have more than two officials at a time. Staggering office hours shall be followed to ensure not more than 20 staff in any given time in the office. As far as possible windows may be kept open to ensure proper ventilation in halls.”
This was to be in addition to mandatory use of face masks, hand sanitisation, video-conference meetings as far as possible, frequent disinfection with sodium hypochlorite solution (which is known to kill SARS-CoV-2 or the novel coronavirus), and restrictions on visitors.
Ministries’ protocol for testing
Several ministries, meanwhile, are putting together their own protocol for testing.
In the health ministry, for example, if a member of a team tests positive, department heads need to fill out a form giving details about the others, including age and co-morbidities.
After this, a three-member committee will take a call on who needs to be tested, and who needs to complete 14-day self-isolation at home.
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