A high price for public health cuts

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In every organisation there is the need to focus on what really matters, the core of the business, the activities designed to achieve the Vision and pursue the Mission.

For the British Safety Council this has always been preventing accidents and ill health at work, and more recently the active promotion of wellbeing at and through work.

As the lockdown begins to come to an end in countries that selected it to put a lid on Covid-19 and prevent hospitals being overwhelmed, we can see that for some risks there is a porous boundary between public and working spaces.

Lawrence Waterman: "The quality of public health is a crucial factor in protecting people in the workplace."

Sometimes this is because of where people work (for example, many care workers do not work in hospitals or care homes, but by visiting people who need their services in their own homes); sometimes the risk doesn’t respect those boundaries and travels across the divide along with the workers, customers and others. That is why the quality of public health is a crucial factor in protecting health in the workplace.

It is unwise to suspend payment of insurance premiums, even if in the first year or two you do not have a car accident, and your house doesn’t catch fire or get burgled. Over the past 10 years investment in public health in the UK was reduced more than other government expenditure.

This has an indirect impact on the death rate from the coronavirus, because obesity and other health conditions that can be reduced by public health programmes make people more vulnerable to the virus. But the direct impact can be seen in the weakness of systems operating at a local level for dealing with an epidemic – the ability to test, track, trace and isolate.

Once it became clear that the laissez faire policy of allowing the infection to spread and create herd immunity, would swamp the NHS, we had to isolate new cases so that we could protect everyone else. Now we must try to get back to close to normal while taking sensible precautions and waiting on a vaccine. But we no longer have the systems and staff that could do this, or the ability to scale up what we did have.

Our insurance had lapsed and we weren’t covered. At the same time as the government makes plans to test, track and trace new cases, we are also trying to open up locked down workplaces. Most workers, according to the latest opinion polls, are worried that this will expose them and their families to risk.

That means we must take greater precautions than will be the case when we are confident that the disease is infecting far fewer people. The safety measures must not only address the technical risk, but also reassure workers that they are protected.

There will be more cleaning and disinfecting, more social distancing, more PPE than may be required when we know more about how people catch the illness and when we know that most people with symptoms are isolated.

The British Safety Council is working with our many member organisations in sharing good practice and developing those workplace protective standards that will enable us, sector by sector, to come out of lockdown and then to further evolve our new ways of working so that they are practical and protect health.

Lawrence Waterman OBE is Chair of the board of trustees at the British Safety Council


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