Government puts workplace safety on back burner

Paul Nowak indicts the government for its cavalier approach

Health and safety has always been important for unions, but the last 18 months have placed H&S at the top of the TUC’s agenda. Back in March 2020 we sat round the table with unions, employers and government to agree safe working guidance for everything from construction to retail to ensure that those going into work would be as safe as possible in the face of the pandemic. That process wasn’t perfect, but like the development of the furlough scheme, it proved the value of government engaging unions and employers on an equal footing, and drawing on the industrial nous of union officials and reps.

Fast forward to summer 2021 and things look very different. In advance of unlocking the economy on 19th July, the government steadfastly refused to engage employers and unions in developing revised, legally binding safe working guidance. Instead we got half-baked guidance issued just two working days before millions were due to start returning to the workplace. On issues like face covering the guidance was at best confused. Despite the government making it clear that wearing face coverings could help reduce virus transmission in crowded spaces, it lifted the legal obligation to wear masks in shops and public transport, much to the consternation of unions in those sectors and beyond. Citing the need for people to take ‘personal responsibility’, the government effectively washed its hands of the responsibility for keeping workplaces safe, drawing criticism from groups like the British Chambers of Commerce as well as the TUC.

This cavalier approach is sadly symptomatic of the government’s wider handling of the pandemic. All too often decisions are taken without input from those operating at the sharp end, and through the prism of party politics rather than focussing on what will actually make a positive difference on the workplace.

It’s one of the reasons why the TUC is determined to ensure the forthcoming public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic is comprehensive and wide ranging. From the scandalous delay in getting PPE into our NHS and care homes, to the exclusion of millions from the furlough and self-employed income support scheme, to its failure to provide decent sick pay, and its ‘friends and family’ approach to handing out contracts, we want the government to be held to account for its actions over the last 18 months.

But we don’t think it’s enough to simply wait for the inquiry to run its course. Instead there are things the government could be doing right now to give people confidence that it is doing all it can to make workplaces as safe as possible.

They could start by fixing our broken sick pay system. The two million people at work who are not entitled to sick pay, or the millions more who only receive statutory sick pay when they are ill, often simply cannot afford to follow instructions to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone who has Covid. By giving everyone access to sick pay paid at least the rate of the real living wage, the government would make sure everyone could afford to follow public health guidance and reduce transmission rates in workplaces.

The government could also do more to boost the work of the Health & Safety Executive. I gave evidence to a DWP select committee in March and made the point that, despite the fact that 14,500 people of working age had lost their lives to Covid, the HSE had issued just two prohibition notices to employers for failing to put in place measures to safeguard their staff, and not one single employer had faced prosecution. As we emerge from the pandemic, the government needs to reverse the cuts inflicted on the HSE over the last decade, and make sure it has the resources it needs to be an effective guardian of workplace health and safety.

Finally, government needs to put in place safeguards for those suffering from long Covid. According to the Office for National Statistics, one million people in the UK have been affected by Covid-19 symptoms lasting longer than four weeks. A recent TUC survey found that over half of those suffering from long Covid face some form of discrimination or disadvantage because of their condition – which is why we have called on the government to urgently recognise long Covid as a disability under the Equality Act. Covid-19 should be designated as an occupational disease. That would allow workers who contracted Covid at work and are living with the consequences to claim the compensation they are due.  

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, their families and communities. Tens of thousands have lost their lives; hundreds of thousands have lost their livelihoods. But if it wasn’t for the work of our unions, and crucially union safety reps in workplaces up and down the country, things could have been so much worse. It was unions that pushed hard for decent and legally binding safe working guidance and union safety reps who worked to ensure risk assessments were robust and carried out. Whatever happens with the pandemic over the next few months, I hope government will recognise and build on the vital role unions have played and will continue to play in keeping workplaces safe and healthy.

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