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Whistleblowing in a pandemic

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What does whistleblowing in a pandemic look like? UK whistleblowing charity Protect analysed calls to its Advice Line from whistleblowers to find out.


Covid-19 has shown the world just how vital the role of whistleblowers are in keeping us safe, from Wuhan’s Dr Li Wenliang, to NHS staff, to care home staff speaking out on shortages of PPE. But have employers changed how they respond to whistleblowers?

Protect is the UK’s whistleblowing charity, and has, for more than 25 years, run an Advice Line for whistleblowers and been supporting employers on best practice whistleblowing in the workplace.

According to analysis of calls made to its advice line, so far this year 41 per cent of whistleblowers had Covid-19 concerns ignored by employers. Photograph: iStock

Back in 1993, whistleblowing was not fully understood. Major disasters and scandals in the 90s, such as the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Clapham rail crash and the collapse of BCCI bank over mass money laundering, led to exhaustive public inquiries which revealed staff had been aware of dangers but felt they could not raise the matter internally.

People did not feel it right, safe or acceptable to challenge malpractice, risk or misconduct in their workplace. This led to Protect – then called Public Concern at Work – and its Advice Line forming.

Andrew Pepper-Parsons: "Protect’s Advice Line has been inundated with Covid-19 whistleblowing concerns."

Things have moved on, and today many large organisations have policies in place as well as dedicated staff in roles to manage whistleblowing. Yet Protect’s work is still as vital as ever with its Advice Line supporting more than 3,000 cases each year.

It is clear that too many employers are guilty of a ‘tick box culture’ when it comes to whistleblowing. In reality – what really happens is a failure by managers and boards to listen and act on concerns raised by staff, as we can see in our latest research, The Best Warning System: Whistleblowing During Covid-19.

Protect’s Advice Line has been inundated with Covid-19 whistleblowing concerns, many of an extremely serious nature. Our report examines over 600 Covid-19 calls to our Advice Line between March and September.

The majority of cases were over furlough fraud and risk to public safety, such as a lack of social distancing and PPE in the workplace. The key report findings are:

  • 41 per cent of whistleblowers had Covid-19 concerns ignored by employers
  • 20 per cent of whistleblowers were dismissed for raising Covid-19 concerns
  • Managers were more likely to be dismissed for raising Covid-19 concerns, with 32 per cent of managers compared with 21 per cent of non-managers losing their jobs
  • Furlough fraud came mostly from very small organisations – 76 per cent of callers described the company size as between 1-49 employees

When we look in more detail at the stories behind these numbers we can see the importance of protecting whistleblowers and the human cost of when we don’t:

Case study 1:

Raj worked as a care assistant for a company of care homes. Raj raised concerns that an outbreak of Covid-19 within the home had been handled poorly and that a decision taken by the home not to refer a patient to hospital had resulted in their death. Raj also raised concerns about patients being treated outside of the Care Quality Commission’s Regulations on Dignity and Respect.

Raj raised concerns about treatment of residents in the care home but was bullied and later dismissed. Photograph: iStock

Raj reported these issues to his manager and the CQC. Rather than investigate his concerns, managers subjected Raj to a period of targeted bullying by managers within the home, Raj was dismissed by his employer on the grounds of poor conduct which were unfounded.

Case study 2:

Terry works in production at a food factory and has been raising concerns about Covid-19 safety to his employers since February. People were queueing in corridors – not compliant with social distancing guidelines.

He raised this with HR – but his concerns were ignored. He was told not to come into work wearing a face mask, but when he did, to protect himself and colleagues, he was suspended. Now staff are allowed to wear face masks, but Terry has been dismissed. He is being supported by his union and appealing the dismissal.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Introduction of a legal standard on employers to have whistleblowing arrangements in place, including a requirement to give whistleblowers feedback on the concerns raised
  • A penalty regime where an organisation can be fined or sanctioned for breaching the whistleblowing standards
  • New legal standards on all regulators to ensure they deal effectively and promptly with whistleblowing concerns being raised to them – and regulators doing much more to drive up standards of whistleblowing arrangements amongst entities they regulate
  • Legal aid and reform to whistleblowing law is needed to ensure that whistleblowers
    who are treated badly or dismissed have an effective remedy.

Regulators have a key role to play in driving up standards when it comes to whistleblowing in the organisations they regulate. We’d like to see regulators playing a much bigger role in helping organisations they oversee, get whistleblowing right and we’ve been engaging with them closely through our Better Regulators campaign, to support them in this.

Protect is also calling for a penalty regime for organisations that breach whistleblowing standards, whereby they are fined or sanctioned.

It is also the case that some harder measures are called for, as we are still seeing too many whistleblowers victimised by employers. There is no excuse for employers to ignore whistleblowers, but during a global pandemic, it is a danger for us all when concerns are not acted on and the consequences could be a matter of life and death.

You can read the report here: bit.ly/374wzp9

Andrew Pepper-Parsons is Head of policy at Protect 

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