politics

Health and safety chiefs to rethink decision not to classify Covid as 'serious'


Health and Safety Executive bosses have privately agreed to review the classification of Covid-19 as merely a “significant” workplace risk.

The Mirror understands that chief executive Sarah Albon signed up to the move at a board meeting earlier this week.

Board members had shared concerns that inspectors felt constrained from using their full powers to keep workplaces safe.

Many were said to be worried they wouldn’t have the full backing of HSE managers as the body hadn’t classified the pandemic as a “serious” risk.

An HSE insider said: “The board had raised serious concerns about the categorisation and the impact it was having.

“They called for an urgent review of that, which was agreed by the chief executive Sarah Albon at the board meeting on Tuesday”.



Health and Safety Executive chief executive Sarah Albion at a No 10 press conference
Health and Safety Executive chief executive Sarah Albion at a No 10 press conference

More than 11,000 working age people have died of Covid and thousands of workplaces have suffered outbreaks.

But not a single employer has been prosecuted – or workplace shut down.

The HSE has handled 180,000 Covid-related incidents which have resulted in just 218 enforcement notices, figures show.

Until now it has deemed the pandemic to be a “significant” rather than a “serious” risk.



Social distancing and face masks have become part of everyday life in workplaces
Social distancing and face masks have become part of everyday life in workplaces

Yet the failure of inspectors to take tough steps could potentially have drastic consequences for workers.

Union chiefs claim the classification effectively removes an inspector’s ability to close down an unsafe workplace or work activity.

But the HSE says the full range of powers has always been available to them.

And they claimed Covid was initially classified as “significant” because, unlike risks like asbestos, it affected all workers differently.



TUC chief Frances O'Grady has called for a review of the Covid classification
TUC chief Frances O’Grady has called for a review of the Covid classification

TUC chief Frances O’Grady said: “Classifying Covid-19 as a ‘significant’ workplace risk tied the hands of workplace health and safety inspectors, and effectively prevented them from using their full powers to close down unsafe workplaces.

“The massive increase in workplace clusters of Covid shows that workers will have been infected as a consequence of that decision.

“If ministers want to make sure we never go into lockdown again, they must do a better job of keeping people safe as they return to workplaces in large numbers.

“It’s time to end the foot-dragging approach to enforcement that has characterised workplace safety in this pandemic.”



The Health and Safety Executive has suffered dramatic cuts over the last decade
The Health and Safety Executive has suffered dramatic cuts over the last decade

The HSE press office denied it was planning a review of its classification of Covid-as a “significant” workplace risk.

It claimed that Covid guidance for inspectors would be considered as part of a “routine” review in due course.

“We looked at how to categorise Covid at the start of the pandemic and reviewed this last autumn,” it said.

“As with all classifications, this will be routinely considered as would be the case with any new hazard.”

The HSE has lost 46% of its funding since the Tories came to power in 2010 – more than £100m – and inspections have declined by 70%.

There was a one-off funding boost of £14m to help rehire former inspectors last Spring.





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