The government is indulging in “magical thinking” when it comes to enforcing COVID-19 safe workplaces, according to a briefing from Independent SAGE.
A new report produced jointly by the independent scientific advisory group, and the Hazards Campaign, argued all workplaces must have a comprehensive COVID-19 safe plan (CSP) based on a COVID-19 risk assessment before workers are asked to return.
The COVID-19 safe workplace charter outlines how the government can ensure a safe ending to lockdown across England, Scotland and Wales, including legislating for ‘roving safety reps’, increased funding and resources for enforcement, plus sufficient financial support for workers to be able to self-isolate or take sick leave without loss of earnings.
At the presentation for the charter’s launch Professor Stephen Reicher said: “Given that this is a matter of life and death, ‘should’ isn’t good enough. We need to sure that workplaces are safe and we need a series of clear regulations to make sure this happens.”
He added: “We have a government indulging in magical thinking. It thinks ‘should’ is the same as ‘is’ – that [saying] employers should make workplaces safe is going to mean that it happens.”
While acknowledging that many workplaces are taking the safety of their workforce from COVID-19 extremely seriously, he argued this approach was needed from all employers, not just some.
Reicher said: “If you want to get to zero COVID so the economy can reopen then workplace safety needs to be a priority. It needs to be absolutely at the core of it, and it isn’t good enough to say employers ‘should’ do certain things. We need a regulatory framework.”
He argued it was a priority to restore health and safety regulatory systems, quoting a 50% cut in funding to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) over the past decade so that there are now only around 390 HSE inspectors. He added that from 2010 to 2017, local authority health and safety inspectors had been cut from 1,020 to 543, and since then have “probably been cut further still”.
The charter makes recommendations to improve statutory sick pay. Trade unions have previously argued that £95.85 weekly statutory sick pay is not enough to live on, and will impede measures to stamp out the virus. Around two million workers are excluded from this benefit because their earnings are below £120 a week.
Sarah Woolley, general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union, said: “Employers who are not paying their workers company sick pay, which in most places is full pay, are effectively penalising their workforce for doing the right thing.”
Woolley added: “The only way to stop the spread of the virus is to stop pushing those who have to self isolate into financial hardship for doing so.”
Her union is calling for full pay for the first six weeks – or an average of 12 weeks pay for those on zero hours contracts – followed by topped up pay in line with other benefit levels for the remaining 26 weeks.
The Hazards Campaign points to increasing evidence from around the world showing that workplaces are the “new frontline” for virus spread, and without action this could give the pandemic “a whole new lease of life” damaging the economy further. Hazards pointed to Public Health England figures that identify workplaces – not including work-related COVID-19 incidents in hospitals, schools or prisons – as the second most common site of COVID-19 incidents, following care homes.
Hazards Campaign chair Janet Newsham said: “Thousands of workers have become ill and hundreds have died because risks of COVID-19 infection and transmission haven’t been controlled in the workplace.
“As hundreds of thousands of workers are urged to travel and return to indoor workplaces with colleagues, after a period of working alone from home, unless there is external verification that employers have properly assessed and controlled all the risk of infection and transmission, including from aerosols, there will be more outbreaks and start local restrictions.”
Newsham added: “Rapid spread of workplace infections is also caused by the ineffective national privatised find, track, trace and isolate system in place, and the local much more effective systems are starved of cash and resources.”
As the schools go back this week, concern has been raised around their safety. Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, said at the briefing: “[There is] concern about timing, about encouraging a return to work for those people who don’t need to go back to work at the moment… the daily transmission is actually beginning to accelerate, having been rising steadily.
“We have also got a situation where schools are opening, and universities are opening - where people are coming from all over the world to start the new term and in this situation inevitably there will be outbreaks. We have also got a situation of the weather getting colder and damper, which are both conditions that the virus enjoys and will increase transmission.
“This is very much a situation where we should wait and see, given the priority that everybody has given for schools; see how that goes, see how university term goes. And then if the transmission rate isn’t climbing up, or sits at a low level, then I think begin to think about people returning to work, if they can work from home but would prefer to go back to work.”
Independent SAGE has since released guidance on university opening, suggesting that online should be ‘default’ to ensure safety, especially given that the numbers in attendance may be higher due to the A-level grading fiasco.