“We have powers to require businesses to stop work”: HSE

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HSE could use its powers to shut businesses down if they fail to take measures to protect the health and welfare of their staff during the coronavirus pandemic, its chief executive Sarah Albon has said.

Pre-empting criticism from unions that HSE should step up and “directly intervene” to urge government to suspend non-essential work, she told Radio 4 Today early this morning:

“We are one of the regulators…and we have powers. In extreme situations we can require businesses to stop work until they can improve the situation.”

She added: “It’s an extraordinary time but the general rule for an employer hasn’t changed – they need to assess the risks that are present in their workplace and act accordingly. They have to think how are they making provisions for employees [against the risk of coronavirus infection]."

Some employees working for estate agents have been told to continue conducting viewings, where keeping social distancing is challenging

Her comments came as Prospect, the FDA and PCS - unions which represent civil servants including those at HSE - sent a joint letter to Sarah Albon and HSE chair, Martin Temple urging them to “do their duty” as the heads of an independent government regulator.

The letter asks that: “You as Chair and Chief Executive respectively to press Her Majesty’s Government to order the suspension of all non-essential work where guarantees cannot be given, that risks to workers and to your own employees; who may be called to an incident are not being managed in accordance with the law.”

The pressure is exerted as a select committee today published submissions from concerned workers. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee received over 1,000 emails and tweets in recent days after its chair, Labour MP Rachel Reeves called on people to send her their stories of employers ignoring the advice on social distancing. 

An employee at Dexter Estate Agent says: “They continue to make [us] travel to offices, even though this involves using public transport and to continue to go on viewings where sellers will allow them.”

Another says: “I wanted to report debt collection [offices] in Yorkshire [are] open as usual and telling staff that they are key workers so their kids can be at school. Please help, it scares us all to be there. It is a call centre environment and social distancing is near impossible.”

Banks have been exempted from closure in the government’s published list of essential businesses, but one worker told BEIS: “I work for Barclaycard in a call centre and our work is solely collecting money of people who have arrears on their credit card. They are insisting our work is essential and making people come in.”

Government has ordered many types of businesses to close and published a list of exceptions including pharmacists, dry cleaners and hardwear shops. 

Boris Johnson, in his TV broadcast address three days ago, said: "If it is absolutely necessary for you to go to work, or place of work, then it's vital that your employer follows the rules as set out by Public Health England and ensures that you have the protections that you need.

"And the proper rules on social distancing do apply."

Impact of coronavirus on businesses and workers inquiry is open until the end of April. Submissions via the webpage:



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