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Passengers on the tube

Passengers on the tube. Photo: Pixabay

New TUC data shows that the Tories have continually failed to protect workers who have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, writes Terina Hine

This weekend the TUC released data on workplace safety, underlying how the Tories’ misplaced Covid strategy has put business profit above workers’ lives. Rather than holding companies and employers to account, the government has preferred to stigmatise individuals for personal transgressions.

As case numbers are falling in every region of the UK and the vaccine rollout is going to plan, the Prime Minister has told us we should be "optimistic, but also patient" in our approach to easing restrictions.

But for all its cautious optimism, the government continues to follow its economy first, business-focused agenda – endangering lives in the process.

Johnson’s more prudent approach has been noticeable since the spike in deaths and hospitalisations that followed the Christmas relaxation. Politically bruised by the country’s lead in the international tables of Covid deaths, the PM and his new advisors appear to have adopted a note of caution.

Consequently, the government is keen to stress that the relaxation of Covid restrictions will be data not date driven. And although Johnson emphasised this lockdown must be the last, he refused to give any guarantees - frustrating those backbenchers itching to get back to business as usual.

Emphasis is being placed on a gradual transition to normality. Last summer’s push to get people back to work with threats of reprisals, along with bribes for punters to return to pubs, have been consigned to history. The current noise from Downing Street implies some lessons may have been learnt – or at least a recognition that another spike following a premature relaxation of restrictions will be politically indefensible.

But when it comes to the workplace the government is still reluctant to implement measures to reduce transmission.

The regulator responsible for safety at work, the Health and Safely Executive (HSE), has failed to bring a single prosecution against an employer for Covid safety failings since the start of the pandemic. HSE has deemed Covid to be a “significant” rather than a “serious” risk, and although this may sound a pedantic difference, the implication is critical for enforcement.

Of the 200,000 Covid-related contacts HSE has dealt with, only 200 have been presented with an enforcement notice, and none have faced prosecution. 

Yet only last week we were told Covid presented a “once in a century” public health threat  requiring long prison sentences for those who transgress.

Between the end of March 2020 and 17 January 2021, more than 42,000 penalties were handed out for Covid regulation breaches by the police, 80% were given to people aged 18-39. Yet no employers have been prosecuted even though, according to the TUC, a fifth of employees going into work in the latest lockdown could have worked from home.

So for lying to an immigration official you can get 10 years; for organising a party fined £10,000; but forcing your employees into work when they could work from home - nothing; failing to have even basic H&S measures in place, such as soap for hand washing - nothing.

The lack of legal enforcement for Covid H&S breaches at work, is criminal. Add into the mix that workplaces have been identified as responsible for 3,500 Covid outbreaks and it appears workers and their families are deemed expendable. 

The minister responsible, Mims Davies, said that Covid was classified as a “significant” rather than “serious” risk at work because its effects were “non-permanent or reversible”. Yet her government has presided over 100,000 Covid-related deaths. Over 10,000 workers have died during the pandemic, while many suffer from long-Covid. Covid-19 is a disease which can be both permanent and irreversible. As an infectious disease it is transmitted wherever people congregate, especially indoors - work places are a prime breeding ground.

To designate Covid as “serious” would require levels of enforcement unavailable without investment in HSE - it would result in workers working from home even when employers prefer them in the office and workplaces being closed until Covid-secure measures are in place. None of which the government is prepared to implement, even with its new-found cautionary principles.

Boris Johnson’s government is not going to place workers above profit willingly, pressure must come from below. Trade unions must unite in calling for an end to this lax approach to workers’ lives - from stopping employers forcing their employees coming into work unnecessarily to increasing statutory sick pay and the furlough. Covid is a serious risk and must be designated as such. 

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