Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1100/31310
The Socialist 9 September 2020 |
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Covid-19 outbreaks: Safety is being overridden in drive to bolster the economy
photo NIH/CC (Click to enlarge)
Jonathan Fluxman and Jon Dale, Doctors in Unite union
Even as cases of Covid-19 infections are rising dramatically, the Tories are desperately trying to get workers back to their workplaces and spending money in city centres.
But workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 keep occurring. Abattoirs and meat packers in Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire, cake and sandwich makers in Newark and Northampton, sweatshop garment factories in Leicester and elsewhere, have been hit. Big workplace outbreaks have occurred in other countries too.
The common feature is workers in close proximity to each other, breathing the same air for hours. It is increasingly clear that working conditions are largely responsible for these outbreaks. Virus spread between workers outside the factory and in local communities plays only a small part.
The timing, circumstances and pattern of the outbreaks points to them being typical 'super-spreader events', caused by airborne spread of the virus within the same enclosed indoor space of the factory. Infection rapidly passes from one or two individuals to many other workers.
Employers and some public health officials have been quick to blame workers for sharing cars and homes. The evidence shows that actions of workers themselves play only a minor role in these outbreaks.
Greencore claimed all its sites "have wide-ranging social-distancing measures, stringent hygiene procedures and regular temperature checking in place". Yet nearly 300 people working at its Northampton factory were still infected.
The spread of Covid-19 in indoor spaces is extremely difficult to prevent entirely. There is, in reality, no such thing as a 'Covid-safe' workplace or school - unless transmission in the community is eliminated. The rate of community transmission will determine what happens in our workplaces and schools, so a national 'Zero Covid' strategy is essential.
Trade unions should make indoor spaces safer by ensuring employers enact hygiene measures, distancing, wearing masks and proper ventilation. Ventilation has been neglected in government guidance.
The Health and Safety Executive, Food Standards Authority and other regulatory authorities should be ensuring this is done properly. But they have been hardly heard during the whole of the Covid-19 pandemic. Years of austerity cuts and the Tories' "bonfire of red tape," slashing even the mildest restrictions on profit-makers, have left them enfeebled and unable to meet the needs of this crisis.
Now schools, colleges and universities are returning. Workers can only rely on their own organisation and need their unions to demand:
- Employers recognise airborne spread as a Covid-19 risk and take action to assess and minimise risk.
- Improved ventilation and airflow, installation of filtering devices, and use of face masks to reduce the infection risk, alongside other safety measures against Covid-19.
- Trade union supervision and control of workplace safety.
- Weekly surveillance testing on site of all workers, including management, in addition to easily accessible testing for anyone with symptoms or in contact with Covid-19.
- All workers forced to take time off due to having Covid-19 or having been in contact with it should receive full pay while isolating. No one should have to work while awaiting test results.