The largest public service union, Fórsa, has accused public service employers of flouting Covid-19 public health restrictions by forcing more people than necessary to travel to work during Level 5 restrictions.

In a statement, Fórsa claims there had been a "widespread management failure" to properly identify precisely which workers actually needed to attend their workplaces to undertake essential functions during the pandemic rather than working remotely.

The union alleges that what it called "macho-management" could undermine national attempts to bring the virus under control, and put the staff in question at unnecessary risk.

Fórsa claims there has been no significant reduction in the numbers of public service employees instructed to travel to work since Level 5 restrictions were reimposed last month.

The union notes: "The official economy-wide Government advice at Level 5 is that employees should work from home unless they perform 'an essential health, social care or other essential service' which 'cannot be done from home'."

It cites Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, who stated on 4 January: "As an employer you have a basic duty of care to your staff. Only bring them to work if that work is essential in its nature, and if their presence is essential."

It also refers to 5 January statement by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar saying: "I'm asking employers to encourage and accommodate their employees to stay at home unless they are essential workers. I want to urge everyone who can work from home to do so."

However, Fórsa describes Department of Public Expenditure and Reform guidelines to public service employers issued on 23 December as "substantially weaker".

They state: "Home working will continue as and when deemed appropriate by the employer, having regard to the changes that may be required at each level."

Fórsa spokeserson Bernard Harbor said the clear public advice is that staff should be working from home "until their attendance in the workplace is absolutely necessary to provide essential services."

"Yet there are many more public servants being ordered into the workplace now than last March, when infection rates were lower and the pressure on our health service was considerably less severe," said Mr Harbor.

He claimed this position was contributing to a form of "macho-management" that failed to put public safety first by properly distinguishing between those who did and did not need to be in the workplace right now.

"The default position should not be that you must come into work. The default position should be that it involves an essential service, for which your attendance at the workplace is essential," said Mr Harbor.

Fórsa has written to the Health Service Executive about issues arising regarding health and social care professional clinics (HSPCs) during the current restrictions.

The head of Fórsa's Health and Welfare Division Eamon Donnelly said in some areas "there remains an insistence that interactions between HSCP's and patients continues to be carried out on a face to face basis in a clinic setting".

He noted that Fórsa fully accepts that during normal times, face-to-face interaction, where possible and safe, is the "model of optimum benefit" for service users, but argues that remote working would be more appropriate in the current circumstances.

"However, given that HSCP's have been equipped with the technical resources to conduct patient interactions remotely and that government policy is geared clearly towards reducing footfall and activity which involves direct contact in the community, it is neither feasible nor responsible to insist on a policy of face-to-face interactions where same can be avoided through remote working," Mr Donnelly stated.

He urged the HSE to issue an instruction that face-to-face interactions during this period "must be restricted to the absolute necessary minimum".

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform which oversees pay and conditions for the State's 350,000 strong workforce said working from home guidelines for each level of restrictions were clearly set out, and it was up to each public sector body to implement them with regard to the services they provide.

It said the guidance on working arrangements during the pandemic was aligned with the Resilience and Recovery Plan, which covers all sectors "... and therefore cannot be considered weaker than guidance given to the rest of the economy."

"Guidance is provided for the entire public service with all its diverse roles and therefore it must be flexible enough to provide for individual sectors and employers to consider their own specific circumstances and working arrangements under each of the levels," the Department said.

The guidance provides that under Level 5, staff should work from home unless it is for working in health, social care or other essential services and cannot be done from home.

At Level 4, the guidance states: "Only essential or other designated workers should go to work."

Level 3 restrictions state: "Work from home unless absolutely necessary to attend in person."

At Level 2, the guidance is: "Work from home if possible. Only attend work for essential  on-site meetings, inductions and training."

Level 1 provides: "Work from home if possible. Attend work for specific business requiremenst and on a staggered attendance basis."

The HSE responded to Forsa's criticisms about health and social care professionals having to work onsite, saying its advice to employees - that those who can work from home should do so - is the same as the advice from government.

It said staff were being provided with necessary technical and other supports to encourage and facilitate remote working, but that it was not appropriate in all circumstances.

"Since the commencement of Covid-19 in March of last year, many innovative ways of minimising requirements for face to face interactions, such as the holding of Virtual OPD Clinics, telecalls, etc, have been initiated and have been found to be very successful.

"These new ways of conducting business are continuing but may not be appropriate in all circumstances," the HSE stated.