Monday April 19, 2021
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Unions warns 'infections could rebound' if workplaces aren't Covid-Secure as retail and hospitality re-opens

8/4/2021

Unions, including URTU, have warned the UK government and employers that 'infections could rebound' if workplaces aren't Covid-Secure - as hospitality and non-essential shops prepare to reopen in England on 12 April. The vaccine rollout and workplace testing must not be used as an excuse to relax safe working rules.

New guidance for 'safe and responsible' return

Over 11,000 working age people have died during the pandemic, with thousands of outbreaks in workplaces.

A new TUC report sets out the steps ministers and employers should take to keep people safe at work and to prevent another spike in workplace infections.

These include:

1) Making workplaces Covid-Secure

All employers must update their risk assessments to take account of what we now know about the importance of ventilation. As the UK unlocked in summer 2020, more emphasis was placed on surface disinfection - but the guidance has since changed to make effective ventilation the priority.

Any activity which can be conducted outside should be, and that employers should invest in ventilation systems, as well as continuing to enforce social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.

A union survey of more than 2,000 union safety representatives revealed that one in four reps are unaware of a risk assessment taking place in their workplace in the last two years. This is despite it being a legal requirement for employers to have an up-to-date risk assessment and to consult safety reps and involve staff in writing it.

The guidance on working from home has not changed. Everyone who can work from home should continue to do so until at least 21 June. Employers should assess the ability to work from home at the level of individual jobs, and should not require workers to travel to workplaces where they do desk-based jobs, even in sectors that are allowed to be open.

2) Decent sick pay for all

Decent sick pay remains critical to ensuring a safe return to work.

It "beggars belief" that a year into the crisis ministers still haven't fixed the problem of workers not being able to afford to self-isolate - despite repeated warnings the government's own head of Test and Trace Dido Harding.

A union poll of private sector employers reveals that of those who intend to use workplace testing, 28 per cent pay only statutory sick pay. SSP is now £96.35 per week. This is too low to live on and will cause hardship. Only 47 per cent of those employers surveyed who propose to use workplace testing provide full company sick pay. 

Ministers should increase statutory sick pay to at least the rate of the real Living Wage, and extend eligibility to the two million low-paid workers who currently don't qualify for it.

3) Supporting workers to get vaccinated

Employers must step up and help the national health effort by giving their staff paid time off to get vaccinated.

But recently published polling reveals less than half of firms surveyed (45%) give their workforces paid time off to get the jab.

Companies should seek to persuade staff to get the vaccine, but not make it a condition of employment. Making vaccinations compulsory will damage employer-staff relations and could result in legal cases on the grounds of discrimination.

There are still questions to be answered about Covid status passports, including how testing data will be collected, and how any scheme will maintain the confidentiality of workers' personal health information. Any Covid status passport scheme must require employers to consult with recognised unions at sectoral and workplace level, and will only work where employers provide decent sick pay.

4) Cracking down on bosses who risk workers' safety:  As England reopens, the government must start cracking down on employers who break the rules on workplace safety.

Despite thousands of workplace outbreaks, not a single employer has been fined and prosecuted for putting their staff in danger. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has still not amended its much-criticised designation of coronavirus as a "significant" rather than a "serious" workplace risk, which limits the enforcement options open to inspectors.

The government must take a much harder stance with companies who flout health and safety rules, and provide the HSE with a long-term funding boost.

A copy of the Safe Return To Work report can be found at: https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-03/Return%20to%20work%20April%202021.pdf

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