DWP staff have accused bosses of making them put their lives on the line to “cold call customers about work during a pandemic”.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) designated all staff as key workers at the start of lockdown.

Since then they have processed an unprecedented level of claims as around two million people rushed to apply for Universal Credit payments while workplaces around the UK closed and households sought immediate financial support.

A whistleblower told The National how staff were “proud” to travel to their offices and help the social security response to the pandemic. Now they feel they are being asked to “risk their lives” to do “non-essential” work at their desks each day as bosses urge them to make courtesy calls to claimants and even start discussions about getting back into work.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one DWP worker in Scotland said: “We are well within our rights to challenge the ‘essentiality’ of the work we are being asked to do. There has to be clarity about what is needed from the DWP right now.

“When the worked spiked, we’d be rattling through 170, 180 claims each in the first two weeks. If that had continued I would have been more than happy to do it. Now I’m just risking my life to cold call people. If private call centres that make money from that are stopping, then the public sector shouldn’t be doing it.

“They are asking staff to needlessly come into offices to cold call customers and broach the subject of work in a pandemic. It’s inhumane, it’s disgusting.”

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In an internal document sent out by senior managers, staff are asked to use “customer care telephone calls” designed to check claimant details, prevent fraud and help explain Universal Credit, as an opportunity to “start job-related discussions” and highlight key worker vacancies.

The PCS union, which represents government employees, says this is “not essential” and is calling on DWP bosses to put this on pause amidst workforce “frustrations”.

A message sent to members emphasises the “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” guidance still in place in Scotland, and states that work the DWP says is needed to “inform future strategy” is “not essential to a claimant receiving a payment”. It goes on: “PCS cannot agree that this work is vital or essential at this time.”

The guidance states: “DWP staff should not be asked to travel to work, with all the associated risks, unnecessarily and should be working from home if at all possible. The risks are clearly still high.”

Talks are set to take place this week and Ian Pope, assistant secretary of the PCS DWP group, told The National: “Our members are there to serve the public but the health and safety of our members is also paramount. They should not be making calls that are not urgent or a priority. That is work for after lockdown is lifted.”

Pope said too many staff are still unable to work from home and acknowledged “frustration” within the ranks, saying: “They are right but we are bound by all these laws and anti-trade union legislation. We have to make sure we work within that.

“If members of staff refuse to do it, they could be putting themselves in a position where they could be disciplined. It’s a question of what is reasonable, what is not.”

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On this week’s talks, he said: “The likelihood is that we will come to an impasse. What happens then is we have to go back to the members.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We are extremely proud of our DWP colleagues who have worked flat out to ensure people get the support they need. It’s testament to their extraordinary efforts that we’ve been able to process more than 1.9 million new Universal Credit claims since mid-March.

“Their health is our top priority and our offices follow up to date advice on protecting employees in the workplace, including observing social distancing.

“Getting the country working again is vital to getting our communities and livelihoods back on track, and we will continue to work towards this goal as safely as possible.”