UK employers escape prosecution as workplace Covid-19 infections double

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Coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces are nearly at their highest levels since the start of the pandemic but not one company has been prosecuted for a Covid-related breach, official data shows.

Public Health England said 243 acute respiratory outbreaks were reported in workplaces in the week ending 10 January as people returned to work at the start of the year.

It is almost double the number before Christmas, since, in the week ending 13 December 2020 there were 127 incidents of SARS-CoV-2 from workplace settings.

The latest outbreak numbers are also the second highest since they last peaked in the week ending 18 October 2020 when there were 262 outbreaks reported to PHE.

Workplace outbreaks have been rising for the past two months, mirroring infections in the wider community. Graph: PHE

The data comes as a new poll of 1172 workers across sectors carried out the RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) found that one-in-25 (4%) British workers has worked within 10 days of a positive test.

This rose to one-in-ten (10%) of those in insecure work such as a zero-hours contract, agency work or the gig economy. Others said that they had worked with Covid-19 symptoms (6%) or been ordered into work when they could have easily and more safely worked from home (12%).

An extreme situation? 

At the start of the pandemic last year HSE said that it is ready to shut businesses down in ‘extreme situations’, but not one company has yet been prosecuted for a Covid-related breach. 

According to a report in the Guardian, HSE has been contacted 2,945 times between 6 and 14 January about Covid safety issues. But throughout the whole pandemic, just 0.1% of about 97,000 Covid safety cases have resulted in it issuing an improvement or prohibition notice.

12 per cent of workers polled said they had been ordered into work when they could have worked from home. Photograph: iStock

This compares to the 2019/20 financial year, when HSE issued 5,000 improvement and notices to workplaces for health and safety offences, and 1,900 prohibition notices – these normally require the employer to stop the work activity until action to remove the risk has been taken.

Responding to the Guardian’s figures, Shelley Asquith Health, Safety & Wellbeing Officer at the TUC tweeted: “Where is the enforcement? This is a national scandal.”

The government 'misrepresented the risks' at work 

Janet Newsham of Hazards Campaign, said high infections in workplaces aren’t just dangerous for the workers who work in them, but for their communities and families.

Speaking at a recent TUC meeting, she said: “The number of workers who have died because of Covid-19 is in the thousands. They are infected in their homes by those they live with who have become infected in schools or in their workplaces in their communities when they do their weekly shop, on their way to and from work when they use public transport but they are also infected in their workplaces or doing their work activities. 

“Infection control is a standard risk control in many workplaces. If other workplaces had needed educating in how this could be done, the expertise is out there and available. 

“The UK Government from early in the pandemic misrepresented the risks to health and the controls needed to protect people. They didn’t put in place strict infection control procedures in workplaces or broadcast the risks people were facing. They did not make available financial support to workplaces to ensure they are Covid-safe.”

How far can employers be responsible for controlling the  risk of coronavirus at work? Read our article here about reasonable practicability in the age of Covid-19


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