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The TUC has today (Friday) warned the UK government and employers that “infections could rebound” if workplaces aren’t Covid-Secure - as hospitality and non-essential shops prepare to reopen in England on 12 April.

The union body says the vaccine rollout and workplace testing must not be used as an excuse to relax safe working rules.

New guidance for “safe and responsible” return

Over 11,000 working age people have died during the pandemic, with thousands of outbreaks in workplaces.

A new TUC report published today sets out the steps ministers and employers should take to keep people safe at work and to prevent another spike in workplace infections.

These include:

1) Making workplaces Covid-Secure: The TUC says all employers must update their risk assessments to take account of what we now know about the importance of ventilation. As the UK unlocked in summer 2020, more emphasis was placed on surface disinfection – but the guidance has since changed to make effective ventilation the priority.

The TUC says that any activity which can be conducted outside should be, and that employers should invest in ventilation systems, as well as continuing to enforce social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.

A TUC survey of more than 2,000 union safety representatives published this week revealed that one in four reps are unaware of a risk assessment taking place in their workplace in the last two years. This is despite it being a legal requirement for employers to have an up-to-date risk assessment and to consult safety reps and involve staff in writing it.

In addition, the TUC notes that the guidance on working from home has not changed. Everyone who can work from home should continue to do so until at least 21 June. Employers should assess the ability to work from home at the level of individual jobs, and should not require workers to travel to workplaces where they do desk-based jobs, even in sectors that are allowed to be open.

2) Decent sick pay for all: The TUC says decent sick pay remains critical to ensuring a safe return to work.

The union body says it “beggars belief” that a year into the crisis ministers still haven’t fixed the problem of workers not being able to afford to self-isolate - despite repeated warnings from the TUC and the government’s own head of Test and Trace Dido Harding.

A new TUC poll of private sector employers reveals that of those who intend to use workplace testing, 28 per cent pay only statutory sick pay. SSP is now £96.35 per week, which the TUC says is too low to live on and will cause hardship. Only 47 per cent of those employers surveyed who propose to use workplace testing provide full company sick pay. 

The TUC says ministers should increase statutory sick pay to at least the rate of the real Living Wage, and extend eligibility to the two million low-paid workers who currently don’t qualify for it.

3) Supporting workers to get vaccinated: The TUC says employers must step up and help the national health effort by giving their staff paid time off to get vaccinated.

But recently published polling reveals less than half of firms surveyed (45%) give their workforces paid time off to get the jab.

The union body says companies should seek to persuade staff to get the vaccine, but not make it a condition of employment. The TUC says that making vaccinations compulsory will damage employer-staff relations and could result in legal cases on the grounds of discrimination.

The TUC says that there are still questions to be answered about Covid status passports, including how testing data will be collected, and how any scheme will maintain the confidentiality of workers’ personal health information. The TUC believes any Covid status passport scheme must require employers to consult with recognised unions at sectoral and workplace level, and will only work where employers provide decent sick pay.

4) Cracking down on bosses who risk workers’ safety:  As England reopens, the TUC says that the government must start cracking down on employers who break the rules on workplace safety.

Despite thousands of workplace outbreaks, not a single employer has been fined and prosecuted for putting their staff in danger. And the TUC notes that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has still not amended its much-criticised designation of coronavirus as a “significant” rather than a “serious” workplace risk, which limits the enforcement options open to inspectors.

The TUC says the government must take a much harder stance with companies who flout health and safety rules, and provide the HSE with a long-term funding boost.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“We all want this lockdown to be the last. But if we get workplace safety wrong, the virus could rebound. 

“Ministers must send out a strong message to employers: act now on workplace safety.

“The government has imposed big fines on individuals who break lockdown rules. But not a single employer has been prosecuted and fined for putting workers or the public at risk. It’s time for the Health and Safety Executive to crack down on bad bosses.

“Over a year into the pandemic, it beggars belief that ministers have not fixed sick pay. Sick pay is too little to live on. No wonder too many are not self-isolating when they need to.

“Ministers have the power to make self-isolation effective overnight – and cut transmission immediately. All they need to do is raise statutory sick pay to the level of the real Living Wage, and make sure everyone can get it.”

On the responsibilities of employers, Frances said:

“Before reopening, every employer must run a new risk assessment, prioritising good ventilation – and act to make sure their workplace is Covid-Secure. They have to consult their workers and unions on their safety plans. And they have to publish their risk assessment to reassure their workers and customers.

“Even as some workplaces reopen, employers must still make sure that everyone who can work from home continues to do so.

“More people are getting vaccinated every day – but that does not mean that employers can skimp on safety measures at work.”

Editors note

- A copy of the TUC’s Safe Return To Work report can be found here:

- TUC employer poll: -All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1002 HR decision makers. Fieldwork was undertaken between 4th - 15th March 2021. The survey was carried out online.

- Safety reps report: The Union Health and Safety Reps Survey 2020/21 questioned 2,138 trade union health and safety representatives about concerns in their workplaces. The full results and report are here:

- Sick pay: there are two types of sick pay: 1. company sick pay, paid at the discretion of employers, often initially set at full pay and 2. statutory sick pay, set at £96.35 per week (from 6 April 2021), paid to everyone who earns over £120 per week. The TUC believes that any employer wishing to use workplace testing should be required to pay company sick pay at the level of the real Living Wage or higher to workers who have to self-isolate. The TUC also believes that the government should raise statutory sick pay to the level of a real Living Wage, and should make sure every worker is eligible for it.  

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