Department secretaries have been told they should organise for staff to work from home "as soon as practicable" amid concerns that thousands of public servants were being unnecessarily exposed to risk of catching the COVID-19 by being required to attend their office.
Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott has stopped short of issuing a work-from-home directive to all departments and agency heads, but said working remotely was "a priority".
"Agency heads have always had the flexibility for employees to work at home, subject to operational requirements," Mr Woolcott said in a statement.
"But current circumstances mean as soon as practicable agency heads should facilitate their staff working from home where possible."
There has been mounting pressure on the APSC to issue a directive for all but essential staff to work from home to help minimise the risk of spreading the COVID-19 infection.
Unions, politicians and public servants have increasingly raised concerns that worker health was being needlessly put at risk by the reisistance of managers and department heads to allow staff who could to work from home.
As late as Friday the APSC said there was no APS-wide directive on working from home.
Although that remains the case, Sunday's statement makes it clear that working from home should be the default arrangement for all staff except those whose job requires them to be at a workplace.
In his statement, Mr Woolcott reiterated that "every public servant who can work, should work".
"These are extraordinary times. A time where the Australian Public Service is essential to keep Australians safe and to deliver services for the Australian people.
"Our focus is on both employees' health and wellbeing, and importantly the continued delivery of critical public services," the commissioner said.
On Thursday he announced the creation of a taskforce to coordinate the redeployment of workers from across the APS to areas of critical need. Those who refuse to be redeployed could face disciplinary proceedings.
There has been rising anxiety among public servants over having to work in APS offices.
One worker told The Canberra Times that "everyone is very tense, anxious and realising we are on the precipice of thousands of people dying".
The Community and Public Sector Union claimed that departments and agencies were actively blocking or unnecessarily delaying the implementation of remote working arrangements, despite the urgings of Prime Minister Scott Morrison for working from home to be "strongly encouraged and undertaken where possible".
Professionals Australia, which represents Commonwealth scientists and engineers, on Friday said there was an "workplace health and safety crisis" unfolding in parts of the public service over the decision by many departments and agencies to keep staff working in offices.
Opposition public service spokeswoman Katy Gallagher wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday calling for Mr Woolcott to "take charge" and issue a directive clarifying work from home requirements.
The senator said it was essential for the APS to lead the way in implementing health advice on minimising social contact.
While some functions can only be performed in an office setting, there have been complaints that even where most or all of public inquiries have been redirected online or to call centres, staff are still being required to attend an office.
In his statement, Mr Woolcott said that where working from home was not possible, agencies should ensure that staff were adhering to social distancing rules, a point emphasised by Mr Morrison.
"Where you can't work from home and you need to go to your workplace, and there are many public servants who are in that situation...because of the important work they are doing [that] they can't do from home...observing those social distancing and other important principles about four square metres per person," the prime minister said.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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