Coronavirus: Majority of British workers want watchdog spot checks to keep them safe from Covid-19

Exclusive: Union warns of 'double blow' of economic hit from workers reluctant to go back and localised outbreaks if workplaces fail to follow guidance

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Monday 01 June 2020 08:21 BST
(Getty Images)

A majority of British workers want the health and safety watchdog to carry out physical spot checks to ensure they are being kept safe from coronavirus, a new poll has found.

Boris Johnson told the Commons in May that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) would carry out safety checks in workplaces such as offices and building sites to ensure that social distancing and other protective measures were in place as people return to work.

But it emerged afterwards that HSE had suspended physical spot inspections to keep its staff safe, with checks often being carried out by telephone.

A new YouGov poll found 67 per cent of workers wanted random inspections conducted in person, with only nine per cent saying they were reassured by with a telephone check and 11 per cent saying employers should be allowed to police themselves.

Only 30 per cent were happy to return to work if a telephone spot check had been done, with more than half (52 per cent) saying they would be uncomfortable going back to work.

Only half (53 per cent) of respondents were confident that someone in the workplace would contact the HSE if Covid-19 health and safety procedures were not being followed, pointing to the need for proactive checks.

The government recently allocated an additional £14m to the HSE but the cash boost came after its funding was slashed from £239m in 2009-10 to £135m in 2017-18.

Staffing levels at the government agency also fell dramatically over the same period, from 3,702 to 2,501, while the number of inspectors dropped from 1,495 to 978, according to figures from the House of Commons library.

Prospect trade union, which commissioned the poll, has written to the prime minister to call for short-term "whatever it takes" funding to help HSE provide the necessary services and called for a commitment to reverse long-term funding cuts.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “It is clear that workers want what they thought that the prime minister had promised them - physical spot checks to make sure that employers are following the rules and keeping them safe.

“But after a decade of spending reductions the Health and Safety Executive will find it very hard to carry out these checks and give workers the reassurance they deserve."

He said the recent funding only restores less than 10 per cent of the 50 per cent cut from HSE's funding and said the prime minister must "restore everything that has been cut in the last decade".

Mr Clancy added: "If we can’t get this right the country faces a double blow from prolonged economic damage caused by workers feeling unsure about returning to workplaces, and the risk of localised coronavirus hot spots around workplaces that are not following the rules.”

Labour's shadow employment rights secretary Andy McDonald told The Independent: "Laws on workplace safety are only as strong as their enforcement.

"A decade of cuts left the Health and Safety Executive without the resources to enforce safe workplaces before the pandemic, and it is clearly unable to conduct the in-person checks needed to provide workers confidence that they and their families’ health and safety will be protected.

“It is vital the government gets this right, which is why they ought to take on board the recommendations of Labour and trade unions to deliver a plan on how safety will be enforced before a widespread return to work outside the home, including properly funding inspectors."

A HSE spokesperson said: “Inspectors are visiting workplaces following up any reports or concerns about safety in the workplace including Covid-19 and ensuring compliance.

"At any visit that an inspector carries out, checks are being made on arrangements for managing Covid-19.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Stategy have been contacted for comment.

Source note: YouGov surveyed 1,853 British adults between 22-26 May.

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