Coronavirus: We have a moral duty to give workers proper protective clothing – Richard Leonard

Irresponsible bosses must not be allowed to demand that staff endanger their lives during the coronavirus outbreak, writes Richard Leonard.

NHS staff wearing a degree of personal protective equipment (PPE) wait to receive coronavirus patients (Picture: Jacob King/PA Wire)

There was, ministers argued, simply too much red tape. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had barely mentioned health and safety in their 2010 manifestos, but soon after entering coalition government they announced a declaration of war on it. David Cameron went so far as to menacingly claim that he wanted “to kill off the health and safety culture for good”. Four separate reviews were commissioned – including the “Red Tape Challenge” – with a directive of tackling the “burden” of health and safety legislation.

While each review, annoyingly for the coalition government, largely endorsed the existing framework, Ministers steadily chipped away at our safety protections and entrenched the “red tape” narrative. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of Health and Safety inspectors was axed by 25 per cent.

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But now the coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief just how important health and safety laws and their enforcement are. Over the past two weeks, we have been inundated with reports of workers being told to put at risk their health and safety at work.

It’s been business as usual at too many companies whose working conditions simply don’t allow for social distancing, appropriate personal protective equipment or acceptable levels of basic hygiene provision. So far, the public focus has largely been on the lack of clarity over which businesses should remain open during the lockdown.

I called for a clearer, stricter approach last week, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement of revised and more detailed guidelines at the weekend. We will soon know if these guidelines are clear enough, or if we need to go further to prevent irresponsible bosses demanding their workers endanger their lives.

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It’s high time we remembered that employers have a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of their workers, and that no circumstances remove that duty. Our key workers – particularly, but by no means limited to, the health and care sectors – have heroically stepped up to the cause but their dedication is no excuse to neglect their wellbeing.

And it is possible to do this even when we are gripped by a pandemic: most obviously, by ensuring a constant supply of adequate and appropriate protective equipment, which for many workers is still lacking. We are no longer in the European Union but the provisions of the 1989 EU Directive on Personal Protective Equipment still are in force. These are set out in law as necessary for “safeguarding public health, improving safety at work, and ensuring user protection”.

Government should lead by example

Despite reassurances from the Scottish Government, too many carers in the community do not have access to the personal protective equipment they need. Too many workers in the NHS are wearing only aprons and masks with bare arms, while others wear full protective gowns and suits with face screens.

If we apply the precautionary principle, much invoked but rarely applied in full, then all our workforce at risk should be provided with the best equipment at all times. It should not just be a matter of minimum standards of protection but maximum standards for all.

Health and safety at work remains a reserved matter, administered by the UK Government. But there are still channels for the Scottish Government to act. The Fair Work Convention, set up by the Scottish Government to promote better working practices, was already promoting flexible working prior to this national emergency.

But it is clear that while such good practice has allowed many professionals to work from home during this pandemic, the reality for lower-paid workers is altogether different. Even though for many, such as those in call centres, it would be equally feasible if there was adequate support and clear guidance from government.

Additionally, one in five workers in Scotland is employed in services funded by the Scottish Government. There is a prime opportunity for these employers to show the best possible practice and demonstrate that workplace social distancing can be achieved where there is the will to do so.

The Trades Union Congress has called for employers to implement strict-cleaning regimes, provide appropriate protective equipment, ensure workers have access to free parking on-site or nearby, and offer changing facilities. All government-funded workplaces should be required to demonstrate they are meeting these standards. They should lead by example.

Tip of the iceberg

The Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland (PHASS) already brings together the UK and Scottish Governments’ safety chiefs to co-ordinate action across administrations and services. Given the evident disparity between UK and Scottish Government guidance, and the confusion this has caused for workers in Scotland, we should examine how this body, set up by the Health and Safety Executive, can better function to ensure workers and their employers never again face such a bewildering lack of clarity.

I have long held the view that the Scottish Parliament should have the power, as with all employment rights, to raise workplace health and safety legislation above the UK level floor. And if Scotland were able to legally require a higher standard of protection for workers, we could help push up standards across the UK.

In the meantime, however, we face the immediate challenge of key workers still not being supplied with the protective equipment they urgently need. I heard at the weekend from dedicated carers and nurses at a care home campus where residents have contracted Covid-19. The private contractor running the site has still not provided any protective equipment at all to staff working in an adjacent building.

I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg, and it will only get worse as the crisis peaks and the demand for services and equipment intensifies. Which is why we need assurance and clarity right now that the basic principles of workplace health and safety will not only be maintained, but strictly enforced. This is not a burden, it is our moral duty.

Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour party leader

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