Govt downplaying COVID-19 workplace risk, report claims

New research from think tank, the Institute of Employment Rights, has found the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace remains significant and is being downplayed by what it calls the UK government’s “light-touch” approach.

The IER report has been written by 11 specialists in occupational health and safety and labour law, including academics conducting empirical research into workplace risk factors throughout the pandemic. The team, from across England, Scotland and Wales, carried out a review of the latest data on workplace transmission and the response of the government and Health and Safety Executive to mitigating that risk, and identifies what it describes as a serious mismatch between the risk to workers’ health and the government’s claims to make workplaces “COVID-19 secure”.

The IER says that the role of work in transmitting the disease was recognised from the outset of the pandemic. In May 2020, the Office for National Statistics identified 17 high-risk occupations and ‘clusters’ of cases quickly emerged in a wide range of sectors from public services to food processing and retail. Public Health England figures have since revealed the highest-risk workplaces were offices, which accounted for more outbreaks in the second half of 2020 than supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined.

Workplace infections account for a significant proportion of all COVID cases. An analysis of PHE data conducted by Professor Rory O’Neill, one of the co-authors of HSE and COVID at work, revealed that 40% of people testing positive for Covid-19 reported prior ‘workplace or education’ activity. Meanwhile, a survey of call centre workers by co-author Professor Phil Taylor revealed that over one in three (35.4%) were seated less than two metres away from their colleagues in contravention of social distancing rules. This is despite a warning from the government’s own SAGE advisors that reducing social distancing to one metre rather than two could increase transmission ten-fold.

In May 2020, the government declared workplaces “COVID-secure” and reassured workers that this would be enforced through a £14m package for HSE ‘spot checks’. But IER’s analysis found evidence that risk was not sufficiently mitigated in workplaces because COVID-19 rules were not adequately enforced.

Professor Phil James, Professor of Employment Relations at Middlesex University and editor of the report, said: “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, chairman of the IER and a co-author of the report, added: “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. They were not. Had employers been reminded of their legal duties and these laws enforced through robust inspections and effective penalties, workplaces could have been made a lot safer than COVID-19 has shown them to be.”

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