It was inevitable that in responding to a crisis of the speed and magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak, the response of government would at times appear confused and contradictory.
But one of the consistent messages has been that people who are able to should work from home.
Employers from across the private sector have responded to the call.
Virtually overnight, hundreds of thousands of workers have set up home offices (or at least cleared a space on the kitchen table) and are using apps like Zoom and Skype to talk to colleagues and clients while juggling the demands of other members of the household.
It is a move totally in keeping with Prime Minister Scott Morrison's exhortation for people to stay home unless absolutely necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19.
So reports that many public servants who want to do the same as their private sector counterparts are being knocked back or stonewalled by their managers and agencies seem, at the very least, befuddling.
The Canberra Times has heard accounts that in some workplaces there are shortages of basic equipment such as laptops to facilitate remote work, while other workers face intransigence from managers rigidly applying narrow remote work criteria.
Meanwhile, the Australian Public Service Commission has repeatedly rejected calls to issue a public service-wide directive for people to work from home.
The APS Chief Operating Officers Committee, a sub-committee of the Secretaries Board that is co-ordinating the operational response of the public service to the virus outbreak, says it is a matter for each individual agency.
But many public servants are understandably anxious about being required to go to a workplace, particularly one frequented by members of the public such as Centrelink offices, when the evidence suggests the highly contagious virus is circulating in the community to at least some extent.
It is understood that some Services Australia offices have in recent days become even more crowded than usual as staff have been redeployed from other parts of the organisation to help out with the surge in demand for government support triggered by the mass shutdown of businesses across the country this week.
One concerned bureaucrat, speaking on the grounds of anonymity, told The Canberra Times of the distress pervading their workplace.
"Everyone is very tense, anxious, and realising we are on the precipice of thousands of people dying," they said.
"In two month's time it will be terrible to know that Canberrans died needlessly because the public service didn't encourage its staff to work from home where possible."
Of course, not all jobs lend themselves to working remotely.
Shopfront services such as Centrelink have to remain open to help people unwilling or unable to access government assistance online or over the phone. Even though incoming flights have been reduced to a trickle, officers still need to control borders. Mail is still being delivered.
The APSC says that where people are working in an office, social-distancing measures are being put in place, such as staggering start times, minimising face-to-face meetings, setting attendance limits on meeting rooms and restructuring teams to cover contingencies. Security guards are being used to help regulate public numbers in Centrelink offices.
But The CanberraTimes has been told that even where arrangements are in place to reduce or eliminate physical public interaction by redirecting all inquiries to phone or online services, staff are often still required to come to the office.
The APSC says working remotely is "standard practice" for the APS. But the accounts of public servants lend support to union claims that departments and agencies have been, at best, slow off the mark when it comes to instituting broad work from home arrangements. This tardiness may be in part due to a desire to have staff on hand for rapid deployment to areas of high demand in the public service.
On Thursday APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott announced the creation of a taskforce to co-ordinate the reallocation of public servants from across government to areas of critical need. But work from home has rapidly become a critical issue.
If the virus breaks out in a Centrelink office, a Services Australia call centre or the headquarters of a major department, triggering a shutdown and forcing many into self-isolation, that will be terrible not only for the workers affected but for the millions of Australians who now, more than ever, are relying on the government to help them get through.
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