Policy Newsletter 2021 - UK Update

Published July 2021

See the International update here.

COVID

COVID removal of restrictions

The removal of almost all COVID controls from 19 July includes rules on social distancing and the cap on the numbers allowed at events. The wearing of face masks on public transport and in shops and hospitals will cease to be mandatory and is now a matter of personal choice. British Safety Council believes that while the withdrawal of some regulations is valid, removing the mask mandate is the wrong decision to take now and risks real danger to workers. British Safety Council believes that delegating the decision on the wearing of masks to individuals risks chaos and confusion, as organisations and businesses interpret the change differently and impose their own rules. What businesses need most is certainty and consistency on what is the right thing to do. The mixed messaging from Government is failing to provide reassurance to workers in transport, healthcare and retail who remain concerned about their safety.

 

British Safety Council issued a press release urging the Government to re-think its policy on the wearing of face masks given the risks it presents to worker safety and not leave the decision to personal choice. See the press release here.

In an extraordinary U-turn announced by Boris Johnson hours after clubs were allowed to open for the first time in 16 months, there will be a legal requirement for (night)clubs and other venues where large crowds gather to ask people to prove their COVID status from the end of September. From then, only the fully vaccinated will be allowed to enter these venues. Until such time, clubs and other venues don't have to ask for proof. British Safety Council’s view is that the Government’s approach is illogical – waiting to the end of September to require proof of COVID status means the virus can be spread between now and the end of September.

 

British Safety Council’s view is either it is safe for clubs and other venues where large crowds gather to open or it is not – safety is an absolute not a relative measure. The Government needs a clear and consistent strategy, not to make up policy on the hoof.

 

Isolation rules loosened for critical workers

Some fully vaccinated people in critical roles in England will be able to continue working even if told to self-isolate/ are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Test and Trace app after being in close contact with someone who has COVID. Instead, those eligible - including NHS and care staff - will be able to take daily tests.

 

Downing Street says there will not be a list of critical workers who are exempt from isolation after being in close contact with someone who has COVID – instead, individual businesses will have to contact their relevant government department to apply for an exemption. The Prime Minister's official spokesman has said these would be ‘considered on a case-by-case basis’. He added it was ‘important that critical services can function’ and many sectors including transport, food supply and medicines were already in touch with departments.

 

It follows mounting criticism of the impact of self-isolation on industry – pub chains, supermarkets other businesses and police forces have warned of the crippling effect blanket stay-at-home orders for close contacts are having on their operations. Those eligible will be specifically named on a letter from a government department. It is not intended to be a blanket exemption for any sector or role. The new rule is limited to those without COVID symptoms.

 

It is not clear how many people are likely to take advantage of the new system, which will apply until 16 August, when the government plans to allow all fully vaccinated people to use regular testing as an alternative to isolation. Under current self-isolation rules in England, anyone who is traced as a close contact of a confirmed positive case must isolate for 10 days, whether or not they have received both doses of a vaccine.

 

There has been widespread criticism that the NHS Test and Trace app has been sending out so many alerts that hundreds of thousands of people (600,000 were alerted via the app in the week 8-15 July) are self-isolating and missing work, causing disruption – it has been dubbed a ‘pingdemic’. There have been mixed messages from Ministers on whether it is compulsory or advisory to self-isolate if pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app. This is creating unneeded confusion and lack of clarity from the Government on the rules.

 

British Safety Council’s view is that it is sensible to allow some fully vaccinated people in critical roles to keep working where the risk of transmission is low. Any exemption from self-isolation should be focused – a blanket or scatter gun approach would be wrong.

 

Long COVID

A cross-party group of MPs and peers is demanding an urgent overhaul of the services offered to sufferers of long COVID amid warnings that thousands of new cases will emerge every day once COVID restrictions have been lifted. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus of more than 60 parliamentarians has written to the Health Secretary urging him to revise the lockdown-lifting plans because of the expected surge in long COVID cases. The letter from the Group, led by the Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, says, “We are concerned that the Government’s decision to lift most remaining coronavirus public health measures from 19 July risks exposing many more people to long COVID, including younger age groups who aren’t yet fully vaccinated. This condition leaves many unable to work or carry out their regular daily activities, with severe consequences for our NHS and economy.”

 

The letter goes on to say, “The rehabilitation services providing support to long COVID patients are already overstretched and under-resourced, and the current increase in case numbers will increase waiting lists even further.” Just under one million people in the UK were living with long COVID in June 2021. Around 700,000 were of working age. The number with the condition for a year or more has increased to 385,000, according to official statistics.

 

British Safety Council’s view is that more should be done to support workers with long COVID, which disproportionately affects women of working age as well as those in keyworker roles. Indeed, it was key workers that were required by the Government to go out to work during the pandemic to ensure that essential services could continue to operate and were therefore at a greater exposure to the virus. We support the APPG’s call for the Government to do more for workers with long COVID.

 

COVID and free testing

UK Ministers have spent more than £4bn on Lateral Flow Devices/ test kits up to the end of March 2021. However, the Government is likely to wind down its funding of COVID (LFD) tests. This is due to its frustration about the scale of waste of unused free tests. Only 1 in 7 of the 655m LFD tests distributed in England by late May 2021 was subsequently registered online, according to the National Audit Office. It is unknown how many of the other 559m have been used but not registered online. Going forward, now COVID restrictions have been removed, the Government is, not surprisingly, looking to encourage commercial provision of tests. Organisations will therefore need to be conscious of the ongoing cost of test kits.

 

NHS Award

The UK’s National Health Service was awarded the prestigious George Cross by Queen Elizabeth II. An official statement said, ‘the award comes in recognition of 73 years of dedicated service, including for the courageous efforts of healthcare workers across the country battling the COVID-19 pandemic’.

 

The George Cross - the highest civilian gallantry award, equivalent to the Victoria Cross - has only been bestowed collectively twice before, and today marks the second time it has been awarded collectively by Queen Elizabeth II. It is given for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger. The George Cross was instituted in 1940.

Wellbeing

Flexible working inequality

Using data from the ONS Labour Force Survey, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has ranked UK nations and regions from the most to the least flexible in terms of working arrangements. The CIPD is warning of the risks of potentially creating a two-tier workforce after its analysis found the use of flexible working arrangements is unequal across the UK – with some areas exposed as 'flexible working notspots'. The analysis found that workers in South East England have the best flexible working options, followed by the East of England, while workers in the Yorkshire and Humber are least likely to have flexibility in their role.

The league table can be accessed here.

 

To compile the league table, the CIPD looked at three types of flexible working:

  • Flexibility over when someone works (flexible hours - including flexi-time, annualised hours, term-time working, job share, four and a half day week, zero hours contract)
  • Flexibility over where someone works (those who work from home)
  • Informal flexibility (how start/end time is determined, ability to take a couple of hours off during the working day to deal with personal matters, able to take leave at short notice, frequency of unforeseen work demands or available for work in free time).

 

The regional differences in flexible working arrangements tend to reflect the nature of work and the predominance of particular sectors in different parts of the country. Professional, scientific and technical jobs, alongside administrative work have historically seen more flexible working than manufacturing or operational type jobs. There is also a relationship to higher skill/ higher pay jobs that exist in London and the South East. These roles tend to offer more autonomy and better bargaining power over conditions, including working from home. Lower skilled roles, which are harder to do from home, exist in areas such as Yorkshire and Humber, where workers appear to have very little flexibility at all.

 

Generally, the analysis found that in regions where employees report better flexibility in hours, they tend to have less flexibility over where they work (the North East comes out top for flexible hours, but bottom for flexibility of location). Regions with greater flexibility in terms of where employees work have the opposite problem, with less use of flexible hours and informal flexibility (Londoners have the best flexibility around where they work, but many don't have flexibility in their hours or informal flexibility with their employer).

 

The CIPD is calling for organisations and the Government to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right for all employees. Currently, employees must have worked for an employer for at least 26 weeks to be eligible.

 

British Safety Council believe it should ultimately be for employers to decide whether a role can be performed flexibly based on individual business needs/ operational requirements.

 

Relaxation of drivers’ hours

The Government’s relaxation of the rules, on 8 July, for how long lorry drivers can work as a temporary fix for a severe shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) operators, is compromising safety standards and is not the solution to the haulage industry shortage of HGV drivers issue.

 

British Safety Council believes the relaxation of these road safety laws is adding more pressure on drivers, who are already exhausted and is unreasonably jeopardising road safety, therefore we have requested the immediate withdrawal of the relaxation. Over-tired drivers coming home from long shifts pose a real hazard to themselves and other road users.

 

British Safety Council believes the UK must maintain the highest standards of health and safety. The Government must not water these down when it feels it expedient. High standards of health and safety are good for business because they protect workers, corporate reputations, productivity, profitability and morale by reducing the costs associated with absenteeism, insurance claims and legal action. Any work-related death, injury or illness is one too many. See our press release here.

 

Four-day week

Four in five UK workers would be against a four-day working week if it meant taking a pay cut – especially those in routine and lower-paid roles. According to the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think-tank, only 11% of workers would be happy to take a pay cut in order to work less, while 80% would be opposed to it.

 

Most of those happy to sacrifice pay for more leisure time were white collar workers and those in jobs with top salaries. Some 15% of people in professional occupations and 14% of managers, directors and senior officials supported reduced working hours and pay, but 17% of sales, customer service and elementary employees wanted to work more hours.

 

Campaigners for a four-day working week favour reducing working time to 32 hours per week, which they believe will boost productivity and improve workers’ mental health. The SMF said that the prospect of a shorter working week – which is being considered by the Government’s Flexible Working Taskforce – risks being seen as an elitist and white-collar office perk by large parts of the workforce. You can view the SMF ‘A Question of Time’ report here.

Workplace fatalities

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published statistics on fatal injuries in Great Britain 2021. This is an ongoing data series that is published annually. The HSE has reported a 28% year-on-year increase in the number of work-related fatal accidents in Britain during 2020-21, with the number of workers that lost their lives up from 113 to 142. This is in contrast to the record low of 111 seen in 2019-20.

 

Protecting people at work and ensuring their health and safety must be properly resourced. Over the last decade, the HSE and local authorities have faced significant and deep spending cuts. British Safety Council believes that a steady funding stream is essential to their ability to provide proactive engagement with industry and to promote and support continual improvement in health, safety and wellbeing standards. It is worrying that 38% of worker fatal injuries were to self-employed workers, who comprise 16% of the workforce.

 

The largest number of deaths occurred in construction (39) and agriculture (34). Among the most common causes of fatal injuries were falls from height (35), being struck by moving vehicle (25) and being struck by a moving object (19).

 

The number of workplace deaths in 2020/21 should be seen in the context of the challenges in the labour market caused by the COVID pandemic and the Government response to its impact, including the furloughing of workers and telling employees to work from home where possible.

 

In addition to workplace fatality figures, the HSE has also reported alarming statistics of deaths related to mesothelioma, asbestos-related cancer, which is still prevalent some 20 years after the use of asbestos was banned in Britain. In 2019, there were 2,369 mesothelioma deaths and it is also estimated that there was a similar number of deaths due to asbestos-related lung cancer.

 

Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the British Safety Council, provided the following press comment:

 

“Fatal injuries are thankfully rare events. Every workplace death is a tragedy for the person and their families, friends and workmates. The latest rise in deaths at work undermines the belief that ‘we have the best safety record in the world’ and raises questions about the cuts in funding of the HSE’s and local authorities’ ability to inspect workplaces. In every aspect of life, you tend to get what you pay for and our government is paying less money and less attention to workplace safety year on year.”

 

Legislation update

Building Safety

The Building Safety Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 5 July.  The Bill will create a new building safety regulator as well as outline the biggest changes to building safety regulation in a generation. The Bill also gives residents more power to hold builders and developers to account and toughens sanctions against those who threaten their safety.    

 

Under the new legislation, building owners will be required to manage safety risks, with clear lines of responsibility for safety during design, construction, completion and occupation of high-rise buildings. The law will require a golden thread of information, with safety considered at every stage of a building’s lifetime. Building owners must demonstrate they have effective, proportionate measures in place to manage safety risks. Those who don’t meet their obligations may face criminal charges.

 

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will set up the Building Safety Regulator to oversee the new regime and will be responsible for ensuring that any building safety risks in new and existing high rise residential buildings of 18m and above are effectively managed and resolved, taking cost into account.

 

Separately, the Welsh Government announced, on 14 July, it will fund fire safety surveys for multi-occupied buildings over 11m to ensure the highest standard of safety for residents. The surveys will be funded by the Welsh Building Safety Fund with high rise buildings of 18m+ prioritised initially. The surveys will go beyond cladding issues and will include assessing internal issues such as ineffective compartmentation.

 

Survey findings will inform the creation of a 'Fire Safety Building Passport' developed by those responsible for buildings.  It will set out what defects have been identified, what remedial action is required and when fire safety measures need to be implemented. The scheme will open for applications from responsible persons, building owners and/or management companies this autumn.

 

Women’s workplace rights – landmark ruling

A community nurse who was sacked for not agreeing to work weekends has won a ‘landmark’ ruling for working mothers after a judge said employment tribunals must take childcare disparity into account, if relevant.

 

The nurse, Gemma Dobson, worked fixed shifts to care for her three children, two of whom are disabled. She was fired by North Cumbria integrated NHS Foundation Trust in 2016 after she was unable to meet a new requirement for community nurses to work flexibly, including some weekends. Dobson was unsuccessful at an employment tribunal citing unfair dismissal and indirect sex discrimination but has won an employment tribunal appeal. The case will go back to the original employment tribunal to reconsider the indirect discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.

 

New State Aid laws

New legislation set to replace EU State Aid rules will grant the Government and councils greater freedom to support UK businesses. The Subsidy Control Bill will allow the Government to help companies as a last resort with grants or loans faster. It has been dubbed ‘the most important bit of post-Brexit legislation yet’. Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said the Government was using its ‘newfound freedoms’ following Brexit to ‘empower public authorities across the UK to deliver financial support - without facing burdensome red tape’. A new unit to issue advice on operating the new regime will be set up within the existing Competition and Markets Authority, but the CMA will have no powers to prohibit the granting of support.

 

However, the wording of the bill is set to be closely studied by the European Commission, which has expressed concerns the UK may distort competition by failing to ensure UK and EU firms operate on a so-called ‘level playing field’. The UK will still be subject to World Trade Organisation rules and any decisions made can be contested in law courts.

 

Environment Bill

The Bill has been passed by the House of Commons and is now being considered by the House of Lords. The Bill is at Committee stage, which involves detailed line by line examination of all the clauses. There is no time limit for this. Once agreed, the Bill moves to report stage, at which point all Peers will vote on the bill.

 

From July, the new Interim Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will be set up in non-statutory form to provide independent oversight of the Government’s environmental progress.