US government urged to protect feds from coronavirus as Trump response comes under fire

By on 10/03/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
President Trump announced that he would work with Congress on tax cuts and other measures after the worst stock market drop in more than a decade. (Photo by Myles D. Cullen/The White House via flickr).

US agencies are scrambling to introduce measures protecting federal government workers from exposure to coronavirus, as president Trump faces mounting criticism for his response to the outbreak. 

The Office for Personnel Management (OPM) – the government’s central HR office – published updated guidelines for agency leaders on Saturday. The OPM’s move comes after Democratic senators called for the agency to take concrete steps to protect federal employees and ensure they would not be penalised for taking health precautions, Government Executive reported.

There has been confusion about the risk posed by the virus – officially known as COVID-19 – in the US in recent weeks, as president Trump played down the seriousness of the situation. He has also been accused of spreading misinformation: Trump said in a media briefing on 26 February that the number of US infections was going “very substantially down, not up” and that it would soon be “down to close to zero” – a claim at odds with both official statistics and expert opinion.

Pandemic response team disbanded

In 2018 Trump ordered the shutdown of the White House National Security Council’s global health security unit, which coordinated the response to pandemics. When asked at a press conference why he had disbanded the unit, Trump said: “I’m a business person. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” and claimed that “when we need them, we can get them back very quickly”.

The media has been highly critical of Trump’s response. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote an opinion piece last week in which she likened Trump’s response to that of Wuhan officials, who have been accused of withholding information, playing down the threat and rebuking doctors who tried to raise the alarm. “So far, Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus combines the worst features of autocracy and of democracy, mixing opacity and propaganda with leaderless inefficiency,” she wrote.  

Amid the backlash, Trump took to Twitter to say that the administration’s plan was “perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned”, adding that an early decision to close the country’s borders to people arriving from certain areas was a “godsend”.

He has since been forced to step up measures to protect the economy. On Monday, he announced that he would work with Congress on tax cuts and other measures after the worst stock market drop in more than a decade. He told reporters he would meet Republican congressional leaders to discuss a “very substantial” payroll tax cut and legislation to protect hourly wage earners who miss work because of the virus, and that he would look into expanding loans by the Small Business Administration. He did not provide any details.

Telework encouraged to maintain government operations

Prior to updating its guidance for agency leaders at the weekend, the OPM issued guidance on 3 March outlining the need to expand the use of telework to maintain operations and encouraging federal workers to reduce non-essential travel. However, Democratic senators felt the guidance was inadequate. They wrote to OPM director Dale Cabiness with concerns that the central HR office’s initial guidance did not prioritise the health and safety of the approximately 2m civil servants and 4m federal contractors. “We urge you to swiftly develop and circulate guidance that does more to reassure them that they will not be penalised for heeding public health guidance, they will continue to receive pay while doing so, and they will not be expected to work while sick,” they said.

Meanwhile, it was revealed that Trump could have been exposed to coronavirus. Two Republican congress members who have spent time with the president in recent days, including one who travelled with him on Air Force One, have put themselves into quarantine following exposure to the virus. Mark Meadows, the president’s newly-designated White House chief of staff, has also put himself into isolation.

Members of Congress are understood to be contemplating a recess for the foreseeable future to guard against a further spread among the nation’s legislators, according to the New York Times.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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