With UK nations set to remove some or all COVID-19 restrictions in the coming weeks, UNISON is urging employers not to let their guard down, but to continue to comply with health and safety legislation and be ready to put additional measures in place if necessary.
Risk Assessment is a requirement under health and safety legislation and employers must comply with health and safety law and put in place proportionate control measures, regularly reviewing, and updating their risk assessments.
This has always been an obligation under health and safety legislation, and as COVID 19 remains a known risk, COVID 19 risk assessments remain relevant and required under health and safety legislation. Individual risk assessment looking at the specific risk of COVID, should also be in place. The employer has a duty of care to protect individuals at higher risk of infection and this means considering further appropriate measures.
Previous Government advice to work from home has been removed, but for some individuals it might still be an appropriate reasonable adjustment that could be agreed. Where an employee’s role cannot be undertaken from home, the employer might agree a temporary redeployment within the workplace, as a reasonable adjustment.
Much has been made of the success of the vaccine rollout, but a reliance on vaccination alone is unlikely to be successful in preventing continued and future infections, especially if all other measures are removed, as no vaccine is 100% effective. In some school settings official figures for school attendance, show high rates of pupil absence due to COVID and continuing high rates of staff absence. Schools Week reported in a recent article, “1 in 25 pupils are absent from school due to COVID infection”, with staff working in settings where few measures remain in place. Despite the Governments public message, employers must consider the Government’s contradictory advice on COVID risk in “Coronavirus – How to Stay Safe and Prevent the Spread“, which states COVID-19 remains a risk and it is still possible to catch and spread COVID-19, even if you are fully vaccinated.
In the words of Dr Tedros, Director General of the World Health Organisation, ‘no country can boost its way out of the pandemic’. While vaccination is really important, it should not be at the cost of all other workplace protections.
We advise UNISON members to question workplace health and safety – Are there still outbreaks in your workplace and how is the risk of this being managed? – This should be detailed in the risk assessment, and on which, UNISON expects employers to consult with union health and safety representatives and share with employees.
To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, UNISON advises workplaces must have an adequate supply of fresh or purified air; adequate space, and those workplaces must be clean and well-maintained. The use of air purifying technology or HEPA filtering might be appropriate for employers to consider, where air exchange is poor. Employers must also supply appropriate personal protective equipment, if required, to safeguard against identified workplace risks. UNISON also advises staff that face coverings should remain in use to avoid the risk of spreading infection.
Despite the Prime Minister recently announcing that the government was ending the recommendation that face coverings be worn in secondary classrooms from Thursday 20 January, and in communal areas in all schools from Thursday 27 January. Given the very high case numbers and absences in staff and school-aged children with data showing they are the highest they have been this academic year, we believe this political decision by the Prime Minister is both premature and extremely risky. We are also concerned at the lack of scientific evidence provided by the Government, to justify this decision.
We all want to see face coverings removed as soon as possible but to do so at a time of very high cases rates in schools risks even more infections and disruption.
UNISON is pleased, that an increasing number of schools have already decided that they will continue to encourage the wearing of face coverings by staff and secondary students (unless medically exempt) in classrooms and communal areas. This includes one of the largest national multi academy trusts, Oasis Community Learning. UNISON is calling on all schools to do the same, to help reduce the risk of transmission, protect pupils and education staff, and safeguard against the risk of further disruption to in-person learning.
If schools in your area are not continuing to recommend face coverings, please make them aware of the above information and urge them to do the same, with a review at half term. UNISON is writing to all school leaders to advise on this issue, jointly with the other education trade union partners. Following Government guidance is likely the bare minimum to satisfy health and safety law, but employers can do more to ensure safe systems of work and employee safety.
We know that staff shortages are impacting schools across the UK, and we are looking to school support staff to let us know what their experience has been. There are 10 very short questions in a survey on this concern – please rest assured that all responses will be anonymous. Feedback is helpful in our ongoing policy and campaigning work. UNISON advice on staff cover issues can be read here, in this statement from the National School Committee.
Members who work in early years have a right to a safe working environment and we continue to pressure the Government and employers to ensure this. UNISON is aware that many of the measures against COVID risk are difficult to apply in early years settings, but UNISON continues to campaign for all early years staff to receive full sick pay for any covid-related absences and for nurseries to receive the same support as schools in the pandemic. Early Years advice for members is here.
UNISON advice to members was updated in January and is linked here with specific advice for different sectors. If there is a concern about health and safety in your workplace, members should contact the UNISON West Sussex Branch on 01243 777636 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org to seek advice. Workplace health and safety is greatly improved in settings where trade unions have high density, if you and colleagues are concerned about safety in your workplace, please discuss how UNISON West Sussex Branch can support you in concerns in your place of work. Non–members can contact the Branch admin team on 01243 777636 to discuss membership, or join online to seek advice on workplace H&S concerns.