Irresponsible firms are exploiting looser lockdown regulations to bring thousands of non-essential workers into sometimes busy workplaces, with little chance of enforcement action by the nation’s safety watchdog.
Analysis by the Observer shows that no enforcement notices have been served on companies by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors for Covid safety breaches since the country went into the latest lockdown, despite being contacted 2,945 times about workplace safety issues between 6 and 14 January. Overall, just 0.1% of the nearly 97,000 Covid safety cases dealt with by the agency during the pandemic appear to have resulted in an improvement or prohibition safety notice, with not a single company prosecuted for Covid-related breaches of safety laws.
This comes as the latest Public Health England surveillance data suggests workplace infections surged as people returned to work in January. The number of coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces rose by almost 70% in the first week of the national lockdown, with 175 Covid case clusters reported in English workplaces, not including care homes, hospitals and schools. New polling carried out by the TUC shows that fewer than half of workers are in workplaces with Covid-secure risk assessments.
In the past week, the government has focused attention on the failure of some people to stick to social distancing rules, from the release of a video of police approaching an individual in a parked car to an advert warning that “grabbing a coffee can kill”. But experts and unions have warned that unsafe workplaces may be playing a bigger role in fuelling the pandemic.
“If the government is upping enforcement, ministers should start with employers who break Covid safety rules,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. She called for big increases in resources for the HSE to stop rogue employers getting away with putting staff at risk.
Non-essential shops are supposed to be shut and most workers are expected to work from home to reduce the transmission of the virus, but unlike the first national lockdown all businesses are allowed to provide click and collect services in England. This contrasts with Scotland, where non-essential retailers were on Saturday banned from allowing customers to pick up goods ordered online.
Shop assistant Mike Richards, who works in a luxury fashion store in the centre of Birmingham, was furloughed during the first national lockdown in March but ordered to come into work last week to make sales calls alongside his colleagues under the guise of click and collect. “We got an email out of the blue saying, ‘You’ve got to get back into the store to sell.’ This is a luxury fashion brand – how can it be essential?”
Richards (not his real name) had to travel by train into work and was told to call clients who had previously bought luxury handbags. “There were eight of us in the store that day. We were masked up but there was hardly any socially distancing,” he said. “Every single facet of what we’re doing could be done in the comfort of our own homes. But we’re being forced to go in. It’s an irresponsible act, for the sake of a little bit of profit for a multibillion-pound company.”
He added that staff had been given letters in case they were stopped by the police on the way to work. “It says, ‘We are carrying out duties of click and collect and home deliveries.’ Nowhere does it say, ‘This person is in the store selling’, which is what we are actually doing.”
Professor Susan Michie, who sits on one of the government’s Sage subcommittees, said people were being needlessly driven into workplaces amid a raging pandemic, which has pushed the NHS to the brink in many parts of the country. “Every day I get contacted by distraught people who are being forced into workplaces, which they feel are completely unsafe. They are having to choose between the risk of serious illness or death and losing their job – not to mention the risk of spreading the virus on the way to and from work.”
She added that click and collect services were providing transmission routes for Covid. “They should all be shut down unless absolutely essential,” said Michie.
As well as clamping down on click and collect abuses, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, also placed a legal obligation on employers to ensure people can work from home wherever possible. This contrasts with England, where businesses only have to facilitate working from home.
Administrator Sandra Jackson, who works for a small vehicle supplier in Essex, was ordered to come in last week, even though there has been an outbreak of coronavirus, with just over a third of the workforce testing positive in December and January.
“I worked from home for one day and then I got a message saying, ‘This isn’t working. We won’t allow you to work from home.’ I’m absolutely furious about it.”
Tradespeople in England are still allowed to carry out all types of work in people’s homes. Electrician Stuart Collins has been ordered to install smart meters in multiple homes every day. “If people had lost supply or if it was a new connection, I would have no issue whatsoever,” he said. “But exchanging existing meters for smart meters is not essential. All we are doing is assisting this virus to spread. They are putting financial gain ahead of people’s lives.”
Professor Stephen Reicher, who advises both the UK and Scottish government, called on UK ministers to follow Sturgeon’s lead. “People have got to have the right to work at home if they can,” he said. “These are not wild and woolly ideas. They’re happening in Scotland. They could be very easily done. But the UK government seems to want to keep its head in the sand.”
Michie said more businesses were being allowed trade in England and more workers were going into workplaces because the government’s lockdown rules were so broad that almost any businesses could claim to be essential. “The government has effectively handed responsibility to employers to say whether they are essential or not,” she said.
The HSE said it had scaled up its proactive work to check, support and advise businesses on public health guidance. It added that it had carried out more than 32,000 site visits during the pandemic. “Inspectors continue to be out and about, putting employers on the spot and checking that they are complying with health and safety law. Our role in contributing to the national response to reduce Covid-19 transmissions and support economic recovery has been widely recognised,” said a spokesperson.
A government spokesperson said: “The law is clear that people can only leave the home to work if they cannot reasonably work from home. We have worked with trade unions, businesses and medical experts to produce comprehensive Covid-secure guidance so that businesses permitted to remain open can do so in a way that is as safe as possible for workers and customers.”