By now, you will be aware of the “Update for all staff” which was placed by NIHE Management on the Gateway website yesterday. I write to update you on the ongoing work of your trade union NIPSA which has got us to this point and which will continue throughout the Pandemic to ensure the maximum priority is given to your Health, Safety and Wellbeing at all times.

As expressed in previous Bulletin PO-25-21 on 28 September 2021, we are deeply proud of and applaud the continued commitment shown and role played by all NIPSA members throughout what are unprecedented circumstances for generations and are also acutely conscious that many members have had to attend their place of work for some time whilst others have been able to perform their duties admirably from home due to the nature of their role. We have kept this reality firmly in focus throughout discussions with your Employer.

NIPSA officers, together with myself, have been meeting with senior management over the last number of weeks to discuss the proposed Return To Work Transitional Arrangements (RTW). Regular meetings have continued at the Covid Sub-Group and two separate meetings have been held with the CEO in the past fortnight where your health, safety and wellbeing has continued to be our priority consideration.

Other separate meetings have been held with HR to influence the tone and focus of the draft “Return to Work (RTW) Guidance”, which NIPSA placed on the Gateway web page last week, on which we are seeking the views and comments of members. We have already received excellent feedback and pertinent questions to raise with HR, but there is still time for you to review and respond – if you have not already done so, please take a look and provide your comments, queries and suggestions on the draft document to your Trade Union Side Secretary John McCaffrey as soon as possible, as the consultation deadline is 25 November 2021. Management preference was to get guidance out to line managers asap to give them time to absorb & action plan prior to 29 November, when the first phase of the phased return to work will commence. Please bear in mind the ‘approximate’ 50% in/out of workplace – flexibility is available, depending on individual circumstances and can be agreed with your line manager via the 1 to 1 discussion process.

Management has agreed to keep the RTW plan under review, and reflect any changing NI Executive/PHA guidance in order to protect staff, limit spread of and deaths from Covid and contribute to the prevention of an already depleted NHS becoming completely overwhelmed.

NIPSA has also highlighted that more practical, day to day guidance for line managers and staff should be drawn up and appended to the Guidance, which your Employer has agreed to, and has stressed that strengthening of the WFH guidance, together with monitoring to ensure a safe working environment for all must take place – this is an organic document which will be subject to change, particularly against the backdrop of the NI Executive actively considering potential further Covid restrictions before Christmas.

We have also agreed that FAQs will be reviewed and updated regularly, taking into account the queries posed by Trade Union Side and your feedback to the RTW guidance document. Consultation on RTW guidance and practical action plans will continue, with your feedback critical to that process.

NIPSA has stressed the necessity for ongoing risk assessments, monitoring of and restricting the numbers attending the workplace daily for each building. We have also sought clarification of how shared buildings will be managed and who will be responsible for each building to ensure maximum mitigation against infection spread. We have been assured that risk assessments will be conducted prior to staff returning to the workplace and that these will be reviewed and updated on a regular basis.
At a meeting this week, NIPSA sought and received, from the Chief Executive, a commitment to deal with any line manager who is not having “reasonable 1 to 1 discussions” with staff in regard to individual working arrangements - we warned that anecdotal evidence was that could be a problem area and that these discussions must be mutually beneficial and meaningful.

We expressed a concern that the RTW document could be interpreted as not applying to members who already attend their workplace. We have been reassured that this is not the case, and have sought rewording of the RTW guidance to ensure that it is made clear that all staff can hold 1 to 1s with line managers, if desired.
The current situation remains very much under scrutiny and development and NIPSA remains committed to working hard to achieve the safest conditions for members to be able to deliver the service to the public both at home and from the office.

We will keep you advised of developments as they arise and keep an active watch for changes to NI Executive decisions to re-impose restrictions that could necessitate a pause to the RTW phased return.

Please remember to keep safe and look after yourself, your families and each other by maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask, spending the least possible time in communal work areas and washing/sanitising your hands regularly.

Kim Graham
Assistant Secretary