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  1. Politics
1 April 2021

Inside the office during Covid-19: The hidden gap in Boris Johnson’s pandemic response

Coronavirus rules have always allowed employers to keep workers in offices – which have had more outbreaks than any other workplace.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Every day, Dave*, a 32-year-old operations manager for a vehicle warranty company in Peterborough, goes into his office as usual. His work could be done remotely, but he and three others he manages have been going in throughout the pandemic.

Lacking space at home, and with two children under five, Dave chooses to go in, despite the government’s instructions during lockdowns to work from home. His decision has led others to use the office too. “It’s difficult to keep track and manage people when you’re not physically with them, you can’t see what they’re doing and monitor their workflow,” he says.

Unlike the 32 per cent of working adults in Great Britain still working exclusively from home, Dave and his colleagues have not experienced a significant change in their working life during lockdown. “It just seems like business as normal, I’ve not really noticed the difference,” he says.

“People at my workplace don’t seem to take Covid-19 seriously”

In February, Dave’s company began providing boxes of lateral flow tests for staff, but Dave admits “we’ve only done about five of them between us and that’s it”. There is not much caution about catching or spreading Covid-19 in his office: “It doesn’t seem like people at my workplace take the seriousness of what it is or what the impact could be – it could just be one person here [who has Covid-19] and it could wipe out the whole team,” he says.

“To be honest, there’s not a lot of social distancing happening here – there’s a shared kitchen, shared restroom, toilet. We do have hand sanitiser and wipes and stuff, but it’s not regimented.”

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Companies like this – which have been allowing or even encouraging staff into the office, when remote working is possible – are unlikely to face any consequences. The topsy-turvy nature of coronavirus rules places heavy restrictions and costly sanctions on individual behaviour, but provides a notably light touch when it comes to employers.

In May 2020, the Prime Minister announced workplaces would be made “Covid-secure” and “Covid-compliant”, but the guidance for employers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has always been just that: guidance. It is not backed up by law.

“The guidance for businesses is non-legal, yet it is a criminal offence for people to get on buses without masks”

The usual health and safety laws and employment rights apply to workplaces during the pandemic, but they have not been adequately enforced. Less than a quarter (24 per cent) of workplace safety representatives surveyed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said their workplace had been contacted by an inspector in the last 12 months. In contrast, a quarter reported lack of social distancing, over a third reported inadequate PPE, and well over half (57 per cent) reported “significant” Covid-19 outbreaks.

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Although Boris Johnson announced a £14m package for “spot checks” by the HSE (enough to contact around 0.5 per cent of the 5.5m places in its remit), workplace inspections actually fell during the pandemic.

The number of inspections between May and September 2020 was 40 per cent lower than the same period in 2019, according to a recent report by the Institute of Employment Rights. Only eight care homes had received a health and safety visit by September 2020.

Ironically, the HSE suspended routine inspections to protect its officials from the virus, which meant “spot checks” generally being conducted over the phone.

No employers have been prosecuted for Covid-19-related failings, and no prohibition notices – which allow inspectors to immediately halt activity – have been served, according to the most recently available data.

This is despite more than 3,500 outbreaks recorded in workplaces by Public Health England since last July. Offices have had more outbreaks compared to other workplaces, according to Public Health England data released to the BBC in January. Shared areas and surfaces, poor ventilation and seats at close proximity in open-plan layouts make it easier for coronavirus to spread.

There are even questions about the government’s own Covid-compliance. Last December, a coronavirus outbreak was declared at the Swansea branch of the UK government-run Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), with more than 500 cases among employees, who voted in March to strike over safety fears. The transport secretary Grant Shapps has even had to deny claims from staff that they were told to turn off their NHS Test and Trace apps so as not to be instructed to self-isolate.

“How come a nurse demonstrating in the street can be fined £10,000 for breaching lockdown and yet employers like this government department are facing nothing?” asks Carolyn Jones, director of the Institute of Employment Rights.

Indeed, the ease with which employers have been able to dictate their staff’s whereabouts – despite the “Stay at Home” and “work from home” rhetoric – suggests the scales have always tipped more towards the economy at the expense of public health, by a government that has struggled to strike the right balance.

“The issue of transmission in the workplace was low priority,” says Philip James, professor of employment relations at Middlesex University and lead author of the Institute of Employment Rights’ report HSE and Covid at Work: A Case of Regulatory Failure.

“For those going into work, it didn’t seem to register to any great deal really that this is one of the main risk areas… The government’s guidance was, quite extraordinarily, non-legal, yet at the same time they were making it a criminal offence for people to get on buses without masks.”

“They’re treating workers as literally a disposable commodity”

Covid-19 is classified as a “significant” rather than “serious” risk by the HSE, something inspectors told the Observer in February was hampering their efforts to issue prohibition notices and mount prosecutions.

The work of the HSE is also restricted by budget cuts, having lost 58 per cent of its funding over the past ten years, and a corresponding 36 per cent reduction in staffing levels.

There are fewer health and safety inspectors than there are MPs in Parliament, according to research by the Prospect union, whose members include inspectors. Bailiffs have even been drafted in for spot checks to help bump up the numbers. (The HSE figure is 959 full-time equivalent inspectors, yet this includes staff at all grades and roles, including trainees, managers and specialists with warrants.)

Inspectors feel overstretched, according to Prospect, which also reports concerns over the quality of ventilation – key to limiting the spread of Covid-19 – in workplaces. The HSE only began instructing inspectors to check ventilation as late as February this year, and there is still no specific code for recording ventilation concerns. (The HSE has published guidance on ventilation during Covid-19, and its inspectors have been raising it as an issue since school inspections began in Scotland last August.)

“We’re now getting to the stage where the government is rewriting history and saying they did everything they could in the face of an unknown,” says Jones. “But the words and actions are not matching up.”

As lockdown eases, the Prime Minister is already disparaging working remotely as taking “days off” and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is talking up the benefits of the office. This echoes the premature and short-sighted calls for people to return to workplaces last summer – when ministers know full well that workers have never had a real choice in the matter, and such decisions have always been left to employers.

“I think it is a scandal,” says James. “I’m a pretty laid-back, world-weary academic, I look at the world and these horrors unfold and I just wryly smile as best I can. But what’s happened during this outbreak, it’s just made me incredibly angry. It’s treating workers as literally a disposable commodity. Go into the workplace, risk your life, and we’ll do the minimum we can get away with to protect your life.”

*Surname omitted on request.

[See also: Does the end of lockdown mean a return to normal office life?​]

Update 7/4/21

The HSE was contacted for comment on 30/3/21. It responded on 7/4/21. An HSE spokesperson said: “When assessing risk of coronavirus transmission, ventilation must be considered alongside other control measures such as hand hygiene and social distancing. The overriding instruction to inspectors is to regulate Covid-related issues in accordance with published guidance.

“The guidance is underpinned by the latest scientific evidence, and reflects the current understanding on the role of ventilation in reducing the aerosol transmission of the virus.”