An eighth forced into work amid Covid safety complaints

Image: Chaz Bharj /

One in eight (12%) UK employees has been ordered into work when they could have easily and more safely worked from home, despite government advice to avoid workplaces where possible.

A poll commissioned by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) found that pressure to go into work while people should be staying at home to curb the spread of coronavirus, was higher among those in insecure work or self-employment.

Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive received 8,427 Covid-related complaints between 6 and 14 January, resulting in enforcement action in 81 cases.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, HSE has handled 134,470 Covid-related contacts, of which 33,088 resulted in site visits. Action was taken to address issues in 7,416 cases.

Earlier this month the TUC urged the government to update Covid-19 workplace safety requirements to protect staff from new strains of the virus.

The RSA poll found that 10% of those in insecure work such as a zero-hours contract, agency work or the gig economy worked within 10 days of a positive Covid-19 test, compared with 4% of British workers as a whole.

Six per cent of workers have worked with Covid-19 symptoms, rising to 8% of people in insecure work and 13% of self-employed individuals.

Many also felt they would be forced into work because they needed the money; only 16% feel statutory sick pay is sufficient for their needs.

Alan Lockey, head of RSA’s future work programme, said: “Our polling shows that millions feel forced to put themselves and others at risk of the virus because of insecure work, pressure from bosses, and the failings of our deeply inadequate welfare state.

“Rishi Sunak must close this ‘economic security trap’ – the terrible trade-off many workers face between their health and putting food on the table – by allowing self-isolating workers to access the furlough scheme, and retaining the £20 per week uplift in universal credit.

“We also need to see help for the millions currently excluded, through no fault of their own – and the self-employed in particular. An ’emergency basic income’ style scheme, using the current tax infrastructure, is the best way to help reach all this group and close the gaps which we believe are helping to increase the infection rate.”

A HSE spokesperson said: “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.

“We introduced proactive telephone-based spot checks earlier on in the pandemic and have since implemented the same process for spot check visits to workplaces which are undertaken by Spot Check Support Officers.

“We continue to scale up the number of spot check calls and visits we are doing so we can reach as many businesses as possible during the current lockdown period.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told The Observer: “If the government is upping enforcement [of lockdown rules], ministers should start with employers who break Covid safety rules.”

In a video posted on social media over the weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the public to “think twice” before leaving home.

He said: “This is not the time for the slightest relaxation of our national resolve and our individual efforts. So please stay at home, please protect the NHS and save lives.”


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