An investigation by the Times this week revealed that hundreds of civil servants at the DVLA – the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency – have been on full pay for months, despite not working. According to the report, during the first lockdown as many as 3,400 of the 6,200 DVLA staff were put on “paid special leave” without working. Meanwhile, as many a driver will attest to, it has proved impossible for many people to get or renew a driving licence. The DVLA case backlog reached 1.6 million last September, which has had a knock-on effect on lorry drivers during a supply crisis of both petrol and food. There are lots of details identified by the Times that make you want to let out a silent, inner scream: managers spent working days in bed watching TV box sets; colleagues who claimed to be too vulnerable to go into the office were jetting off on holiday.
The main thing I hope this investigation serves to highlight, however, is that “because Covid” has now had a two-year lifespan as an excuse used by many people and organisations, to abdicate all sense of responsibility. There has been, every day for the past two years, an “unprecedented call volume” due to Covid (when will the call volume be precedented?). Some organisations are maddeningly casual about it; in November I spent an hour calling the Department for Work and Pensions only to reach someone who told me she was working from home and “didn’t have internet today so couldn’t help me with my query”. She continued to explain that as a result of working from home, she didn’t have the technology to connect me to someone who could help, so I would have to ring through again – she shrugged, “sorry”.
Perhaps this culture shift is no surprise given our attitude towards Covid during the pandemic. We’ve treated it as our Voldemort: “neither can live while the other survives.” Indeed, the mantra “I can’t because Covid” feels inextricably linked to the absurdist hygiene theatre that we have seen: grand gestures around hand sanitising even though almost all Covid transmission is airborne, and so on. It is a telling detail that the DVLA spent £6m on making its office “Covid-secure”; that its employees striked for 58 days over Covid safety fears. But given that large organisations such as the DVLA have specific provisions in place for the clinically vulnerable, and given the majority of the population is vaccinated, the ability to use Covid as a blanket excuse feels disproportionate and unfair. It seems bizarre that even if employees do work from home, they’re not required to meet basic performance standards.
It is usually certain perma-outraged members of the right that call out the lethargy that has seeped into some institutions over the course of the pandemic. Yet the lack of accountability caused by Covid is exactly the sort of thing that those on the left should be standing up against. A laid-back culture isn’t “progressive” – if, as in the case of the DVLA, it leaves a retired driving instructor in a wheelchair without independence for 13 months, despite repeated applications for basic licence renewal going unresolved.
We should hold people who abuse provisions such as working from home accountable, because when we don’t, some Conservatives call into question the validity of such provisions. People who talk about “scrambling for the remote to turn the volume down” whenever a phone call comes, as one DVLA employee did, undermine the millions across the country who have slogged away at their jobs while working from home – and excelled at them.
Indeed, many DVLA employees not only undermined their colleagues who had been working hard, but the people who really needed time off for caring responsibilities, or to work remotely because they were shielding. Their actions are an insult to the vulnerable.