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WORKPLACES are suffering “an explosion” in coronavirus infections because the government ignored warnings about the dangers of a rush back to work, according to a damning report released today.
The report, by occupational-health experts at the Hazards campaign, accuses the government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of “an unprecedented abdication of responsibility” resulting in workers’ deaths.
Hazards, which monitors health and safety at work, said that workplaces are “emerging as the new front line for Covid-19 spread,” second only to care homes.
In a damning condemnation of the government, the report said: “At the start of the outbreak, we were promised a ‘Covid-secure’ return to work.
“What we have got instead is a government-driven stampede back into workplaces, without the necessary oversight or support for workers or for businesses.
“The government are forcing children back into unsafe schools so that parents can return to unsafe workplaces and the chaotic and irresponsible opening of pubs, clubs and gyms during a high transmission of a potentially fatal disease is madness.”
Hazards chairwoman Janet Newsham said: “[The HSE] have been AWOL throughout the pandemic, and as a result, workers have died and many more have been left with long-term serious ill-health.”
The report warns that reopening schools next month would “massively increase contacts between potentially infected individuals and will lead to pressure for more people to return to workplaces, greatly increasing risks.
“Without adequate protection, rights and oversight, we are going to give the pandemic a whole new lease of life and the economy will continue to be decimated,” it said.
The report added that food production was one of the worst-hit sectors.
Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union general secretary Sarah Woolley said: “What has become clear through the pandemic is the government have failed our essential workers time after time, from the shoddy misleading guidance they have produced to changes being made around what can or can’t be done without any logical thought.
“The pandemic has hit on the back of a decade of austerity and has rendered the HSE useless in dealing with employers who are following the government guidelines but failing to remember or adhere to their legal duties under health and safety legislation.
“To add insult to injury, many essential workers who experience symptoms are then penalised for doing the right thing and staying at home to self-isolate by being paid statutory sick pay, which is not fit for purpose.”
Public and Commericial Services union (PCS) general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Boris Johnson’s handling of the corona pandemic has been calamitous.
“Recent Cabinet Office advice for civil servants returning to the workplace goes against the principles of health-and-safety legislation [and] the government have not compelled individual departments to negotiate with the union on returning to work, disregarding basic health-and-safety law.”
Sheffield Trade Union Council secretary Martin Mayer said: “Here in Sheffield, there are plenty of examples of bad bosses forcing their employees back to work when it’s not safe to do so.
“From fast food to distribution warehouses, from food processing to manufacturing, too many bosses have ignored social-distancing and sanitation requirements.
“Workers who refuse to come back are dismissed or their zero hours contract remains literally just that — zero hours.”
An HSE spokesperson said that ensuring workplaces are Covid-secure was its “top priority,” adding that public-health analysis had shown that “very few local outbreaks appear to be starting in the workplace.”
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