'Nothing’s changed during Covid, same workload, business as usual'

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Non-essential housing maintenance work must stop, says Unite, which reports that tenants in Kent as well as workers are being exposed to the virus for small jobs around the house.

Thousands of council and social housing tenants in Kent as well as workers visiting their homes are being put at unnecessary risk during the current lockdown, reports Unite the union.

Unite says three large companies which manage social housing contracts in Kent are sending out maintenance workers to do non-essential repairs where tenants, claims Unite, do not always comply with safety protocols.

Unite says only essential work (such as Gas Safe checks) should be done during lockdown. Photograph: iStock

“Tenants do not wear masks when tradespeople are in their properties and in addition, most do not observe the two metre distancing, they do not stay isolated in a room they wander around,” a Unite officer told Safety Management.

The source described one occasion when a tenant who, when asked, said they did not have Covid-19 but was later heard on the phone confirming she had tested positive. “Tenants’ strict bubbles are not always observed, various friends and family, and neighbours turn up.”

A lot of tenants are elderly. “The workers feel at risk of giving it to the tenant as they could be carriers showing no symptoms,” the officer explained.

Essential work?

The workers are doing jobs such as plastering and decorating, replacing kitchen surfaces that are still fit for purpose, or changing handles on kitchen units, which Unite says are non-essential jobs.

"Nothing’s changed with the service during the lockdown, it’s the same workload, business as usual."

Unite is warning that the unnecessary contact could lead to increased transmission rates throughout Kent. It has argued that only emergency work and essential procedures (such as Gas Safe checks) should be undertaken during lockdown, but says the companies have 'rebuffed' its concerns.

The companies are Mears, which manages homes in Canterbury, Margate, Dover and Folkestone. Also, Axis Europe Ltd, which has the maintenance contract for housing association Optivo, which manages social housing in the Swale council area.

'Visits are conducted as safely as possible'

When contacted, Axis and Optivo responded with a joint statement to say that they have followed the government’s guidelines throughout the pandemic. “We’ve invested significantly in training, communication and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to ensure our visits are conducted as safely as possible,” said a spokesperson.

“We request residents inform us if they’re self-isolating prior to any appointments so we can delay as necessary. We also double check when we visit and ask residents to follow social distancing and ventilation guidance while our operatives are in their home.”

When contacted by Safety Management, a spokesperson for Mears commented: “Safety is absolutely our number one priority and we continue to work in a covid safe way, going above and beyond Government guidance.”

Skilled trades highest risk of death 

According to government advice, landlords and contractors can carry out routine repairs and inspections during the lockdown, providing that guidance is followed.

Guidance includes communicating with households prior to arrival, and on arrival, to ensure the household understands the social distancing and hygiene measures.

But this is clearly not ruling out infection among tradesmen. According to the ONS, men working in skilled trades occupations have some of the highest mortality rates of death involving Covid-19.

 “Our members feel at risk of catching Covid and taking it home with them exposing partners and family,” said the Unite officer.

 “Nothing’s changed with the service during Covid, it’s the same workload, business as usual.”

ONS Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation here

Government guidance for landlords and tenants during lockdown here


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