REVEALED: The staff at Preston firms left fearing for their safety over social distancing stance

Preston’s MP says that he has been “inundated” with correspondence from concerned constituents who fear that they are being put at risk of contracting coronavirus where they work.

Saturday, 25th April 2020, 12:17 pm
Updated Saturday, 25th April 2020, 12:18 pm

Sir Mark Hendrick has written to the government requesting that rules on social distancing in the workplace are clarified, so that employees know what they can demand of their bosses in order to keep themselves safe.

General social distancing guidelines warn people to keep at least two metres apart from each other to help stem the spread of Covid-19.

But advice aimed specifically at businesses states that they should implement these separation measures “wherever possible” – a phrase which caveats much of the guidance issued to companies about how they can continue to operate during the lockdown.

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Is social distancing at work a recommendation or a right? (image: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has learned of fears amongst workers at a customer contact firm in Preston, whose website claims that they are “putting [staff] welfare first" – but where at least some of their employees are far from convinced.

It is understood that staff at Ringway-based NCO Europe, have raised concern over their desks not being two metres apart and their offices being poorly ventilated.

It has also been claimed that there is floorspace going unused at the headquarters of the company, which describes itself a “business process outsourcer”, offering services to clients in fields including debt collection and retail customer service.

Responding to the claims, Deborah Nichol, NCO Europe’s head of human resources, said: “As a large employer in the local area for over 20 years, the welfare of our staff has always been our first priority, whilst we strive to provide essential services to our clients and their customers at this difficult time.

Sir Mark Hendrick has demanded clearer guidance on social distancing in the workplace - and whether non-essential work should be carried out at all

“We are satisfied that we are following and are fully compliant with all Government requirements and guidance surrounding the current Covid-19 pandemic.”

The government has said that is “important for business to carry on” – and has told only a limited number of specific outlets – including pubs, restaurants and hairdressers – to close their doors.

But Sir Mark Hendrick believes that employees deserve better than the way they are being treated by those firms about which he has received so many complaints.

“My office has been inundated with emails from people who have either been asked to return to work or who are still in work, despite government advice that only those whose work is essential should be there.

“Those who are contacting me have personal health and wellbeing concerns about being asked to do things which fly in the face of this advice. I have written to the government expressing my concern over the possibility that this is undermining the effort against the coronavirus,” Sir Mark added.

In his letter, he asked for "absolute guidance on social distancing in the workplace and, if the employer does not adhere to these guidelines, where this can be reported and what action can be taken to ensure the safety of employees and security of jobs".

The owner of one Central Lancashire firm, who did not want to be named, said that confusion had developed in the mind of the general public over the distinction between non-essential travel and non-essential business. While the former is outlawed under the lockdown, much of the latter is permitted to continue.

But the GMB Union, which has also received complaints about the social distancing measures adopted by employers in Preston, said that companies could not “have it both ways” over the coronavirus guidance.

“If they say they are abiding by the rules which allow them to open if they put a bit of hand sanitiser on the shelf, they also need to abide by the two-metre guidelines on social distancing – either do it property or don’t do it all and shut,” said Neil Smith, political officer for GMB North West.

“I understand the confusion, but sometimes unscrupulous management in certain industries are pressuring people to come into work.

“Don’t put the community at risk and the NHS under strain. If you’re going to stay open, then adhere to the rules – and if you can’t stick to the rules, then go into furlough.”

Furlough is the scheme under which the government pays 80 percent of an employee’s wages – up to £2,500 per month – meaning that their employer can relieve them of their duties, currently for up to four months, but keep their job open for them.

While designed for companies whose operations are “severely affected” by coronavirus, all employers are eligible to claim under the scheme, because the government “recognises different businesses will face different impacts” as a result of the crisis.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said that, at the outset of the pandemic, the authority had received “worrying reports about workers and customers being in environments where there was inadequate social distancing” in the city.

“Now it seems the vast majority of people are either finding ways to work from home or, where this isn’t possible – and their employment is not included in the list of businesses that have to close – they are finding ways to maintain social distancing at work,“ Cllr Brown said.

“We would encourage businesses to look at the information that is available to them – for example, on our website – and if they have a specific enquiry, then by all means get in touch.

“The core message – stay home, protect the NHS, save lives – is a great one. While it doesn’t cover every individual’s circumstances, it does provide a clear direction that employers and employees together should be aiming to achieve.

“We’re clear on what is and isn’t permissible, and we’ve been working with the businesses of Preston, who have been extremely cooperative in what are very challenging times, to make sure we do all we can to limit the spread of coronavirus,” Cllr Brown added.

WHERE DO STAFF STAND LEGALLY?

Preston employment lawyer Gordon Turner says that government guidelines on the steps employers must take in relation to coronavirus have been drafted in such a way that they do not set “mandatory standards” by which a company’s actions can be judged.

However, that does not mean employees are powerless in their attempts to keep themselves safe.

“I would always advise employees to follow medical and health and safety advice before looking at their legal rights,” Mr. Turner explained.

“Following sound medical advice – for instance, if an employee refuses to abide by management instructions – would normally position them well. It would normally be unreasonable to expect an employee to go against medical advice.”

Mr. Turner added that while employers should ensure they were following government guidelines, staff should also be willing to raise concerns with their boss.

“Employees will have to be alert to risk and consider taking steps to require their employers to ensure they aren’t exposed to risk of coronavirus by alerting managers to risks and possibly even offering solutions.”

Existing health and safety legislation does not require employers to do everything within their power to prevent harm – but to “take reasonable precautionary steps”.

“An employer who follows government guidance will probably have a good defence to constructive dismissal claims – where the employee resigns due to legal failures of the employer,” Mr. Turner said.

“[Employers have a duty] to provide and monitor, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment which is reasonably suitable for the performance [by employees] of their contractual duties.

“This duty is broader than the health and safety duty. But again, following the guidance would be a good defence for employers, because of the ‘reasonably practicable’ hurdle.

“But note also the ongoing duty to ‘monitor’ – so employers must regularly review the risk proactively and react to indications of risk from monitoring and employee reporting.”

Mr. Turner said that his usual advice to employees who felt that they were being exposed to risk as a result of their work – to get another job now and seek any legal redress later – would obviously be more difficult during the sharp economic downturn which is now expected to hit the UK economy.

WHAT THE GUIDELINES SAY

All employees should be encouraged to work from home unless it is impossible for them to do so. If they do have to attend their place of work:

***Workplaces should maintain a distance of at least two metres (3 steps) between individuals wherever possible – this also applies to areas where staff may need to interact with customers.

***Where it is possible to remain two metres apart, floor markings should be used to indicate the distance. Where that is not achievable, staff should work side by side or facing away from each other – rather than face to face – if possible.

***Where face-to-face contact is essential, this should be kept to 15 minutes or less, wherever possible.

***Workplaces should provide additional pop-up handwashing stations or facilities, if possible – offering soap, water, hand sanitiser and tissues – and encourage staff to use them.

***Where staff are split into teams, those splits should be fixed as far as possible, so that where contact is unavoidable, it happens between the same individuals.

***Anybody who develops coronavirus symptoms should be sent home and follow the relevant self-isolation advice.

Source: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

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