A think-tank has accused the government of downplaying the risk of Covid-19 transmission in the workplace – which could have accounted for 40% of coronavirus cases.
A report compiled by the Institute of Employment Rights (IER), written by 11 specialists including academics and experts in occupational health and health and safety, claims that ‘Covid-secure’ guidance is not adequately being enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
It says the government’s approach to enforcement of health and safety requirements has been underfunded, light-touch and understaffed.
Analysis of Public Health England (PHE) data in the HSE and Covid at work: a case of regulatory failure report shows that that 40% of people testing positive for Covid-19 reported prior “workplace or education” activity. Meanwhile, a survey of call centre workers revealed that 35.4% were seated less than two metres away from their colleagues in contravention of social distancing rules.
The report claims there have been “major failures at all levels to control both its airborne and surface transmission” in workplaces, which have led to the emergence of “Covid-19 clusters” across sectors and locations.
“It has also become clear that certain occupational groups have been particularly exposed to the risk of contracting and dying from the disease. There is consequently no doubt that failures of control have resulted in unnecessary fatalities,” it says.
The number of workplace inspections completed between May and September 2020 was 40% lower than during the same period in 2019, the report suggests. Even care homes, where the virus presented an extremely lethal threat, were not adequately inspected, with only eight having received a visit by September 2020.
It also claims that HSE inspectors were barred from making workplace visits because of the dangers the virus presented. Spot checks were instead conducted by phone, the report says.
An HSE spokesperson said: “We have been made aware of the report and will examine its findings.”
Phil James, professor of employment relations at Middlesex University and editor of the report, said: “When the pandemic was declared on 11 March 2020, the government had to decide how it would balance the protection of public health with the protection of the economy. A year later, our analysis suggests it got that balance wrong. Our jobs are among the most important features of our lives, but they are not worth our lives, nor are they worth the lives of colleagues, family and friends.
“This light-touch approach to the regulation of businesses during the worst pandemic we have seen in 100 years must now be subject to a major independent public inquiry to understand what went wrong and how we can do better. It is vital that we learn from the failings of workplace regulation over the last year, because this pandemic proves that workers’ health is also public health – it benefits us all.”
Lord John Hendy QC, chair of the IER, said: “Something has gone very badly wrong when enforcement action has been taken against over 40,000 members of the public and holidaymakers are threatened with ten years in jail but employers known to have put thousands of people at risk are getting off scot free.
“There has been health and safety legislation on the UK’s statute book for over 200 years. The current regulations are well known and could have been reasonably and effectively applied to protect workers.”
The report makes numerous recommendations for reform, including:
- The launch of a public inquiry into the future of workplace health and safety regulations
- A significant increase in investment for the HSE, and ensuring its political independence
- Enhancement of existing safety representative rights relating to the provision of information, consultation, and training – including paid time off to undertake it – and stronger trade union rights, such as the issuing of improvement notices
- Reform of the current statutory framework for health and safety at work to better protect workers in casual forms of employment
- Consideration of international models of co-enforced oversight of health and safety regulations, and whether they should be adopted in the UK
- Consideration of the value and application of forms of supply chain regulation.