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Staff ‘pressured to go back to work’ in breach of UK Covid rules

Thousands of workers feel pressured to return to their jobs when they still risk spreading coronavirus, and employers who breach Covid guidelines are avoiding serious punishment, according to evidence of major weaknesses in England’s lockdown measures. One in 10 of those doing insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts and agency or gig economy jobs, said they had been to work within 10 days of a positive Covid test, according to research seen by the Observer. For workers overall the proportion is around one in 25.

More than one in nine workers said they had been ordered back to their workplace when they could have worked from home, according to the survey, carried out for the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

The government has been warned repeatedly that economic support on offer for people who are self-isolating is inadequate and puts pressure on them to return to work too soon. There have also been thousands of complaints about workplaces not being Covid-compliant during the current lockdown.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors have not issued any enforcement notices on companies for Covid safety breaches since the start of the latest lockdown, despite having been contacted 2,945 times between 6 and 14 January about safety issues. Just 0.1% of about 97,000 Covid safety cases it has dealt with during the pandemic appear to have resulted in the issuing of an improvement or prohibition notice. No company has been prosecuted for a Covid-related breach.

Coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces rose by almost 70% in the first week of the national lockdown, with 175 Covid case clusters reported in English workplaces, not including care homes, hospitals and schools.

Commuters at Liverpool Street railway station on 15 January during the third London lockdown. Photograph: Thomas Krych/SOPA Images/Rex/Shutterstock

There is also evidence that families on low incomes are avoiding the Covid-19 testing system because they cannot afford to isolate if they test positive. Meanwhile, there have been complaints that red tape is hampering access to the government’s £500 compensation payments.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “With intensive care beds filling up and the virus still at sky-high prevalence, breaking transmission chains is urgent. But for millions who can’t work from home on a laptop, or whose employer insists they still go to work, this is a phoney lockdown. We need clear enforcement, making workplaces Covid secure.

“Employees who don’t need to be there shouldn’t be forced into work, and those ill with Covid should be provided with decent sick pay and financial support to isolate. For ministers to have still failed to put in place these fundamentals is unforgivable.”

A further 1,295 people were yesterday reported to have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK total to 88,590. The weekly total of 7,722 deaths was 23.5% higher than in the previous seven days. However, the number of cases is clearly falling – 339,956 positive cases have been recorded in the past seven days, a fall of 18.6% on the previous week.

Behavioural experts advising the government have been warning that ministers risk putting too much focus on a general failure to stick to social distancing rules, including a proposed advert warning that “grabbing a coffee can kill”. But experts and unions claim that unsafe workplaces may be playing a bigger role in spreading the virus.

Professor Susan Michie, who sits on one of the government’s scientific advisory groups, said too many people “are having to choose between risk of serious illness or death and losing their job – not to mention the risk of spreading the virus on the way to and from work”.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “If the government is upping enforcement, ministers should start with employers who break Covid safety rules.”

“Self-isolation for two weeks is not an option for someone who works in the gig economy and may not be offered work subsequently if they are deemed ‘unreliable’, or for someone who is the family breadwinner,” said David Hunter, professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the University of Oxford.

“As long was these issues are not addressed, the isolate part of the test, trace and isolate system will be much less effective than it needs to be, particularly in the face of the new more infectious strain of the virus.”

Rishi Sunak has been urged to do more to support people who are self-isolating.

Rishi Sunak has been urged to do more to support people who are self-isolating. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Alan Lockey, head of RSA’s future work programme, agreed. “Millions feel forced to put themselves and others at risk of the virus because of insecure work, pressure from bosses, and the failings of our deeply inadequate welfare state,” he said “Rishi Sunak must close this ‘economic security trap’ – the terrible trade-off between health and putting food on the table – by allowing self-isolating workers to access the furlough scheme, and retaining the £20 a week uplift in universal credit. ”

The HSE said it had scaled up its work to check, support and advise businesses, and had carried out more than 32,000 site visits during the pandemic. A government spokesperson said: “The law is clear that people can only leave the home to work if they cannot reasonably work from home. We have worked with trade unions, businesses and medical experts to produce comprehensive Covid-secure guidance so that businesses permitted to remain open can do so in a way that is as safe as possible for workers and customers.”

The public are in favour of a tighter lockdown. A majority think takeaway restaurants and cafes (51%) and nurseries (61%) should now be closed, according to the latest Opinium poll for the Observer. A majority (53%) also think that there should be a “ban on people walking or exercising with anybody from outside their household”, and that “click and collect” should be suspended for all but essential shops (55%).

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