‘My boss made me come to work and I caught Covid’

Jane works as an administrator for a private healthcare firm in Oxfordshire, a job she is expected to do from the office, even in lockdown.

However, since she caught Covid-19 at work before Christmas, she has chosen to work from home because she feels safer – something that is causing rankles with her boss.

“The office is so small and it is impossible to socially distance,” she tells the BBC. 

“My boss also didn’t follow guidelines when I got ill and no one was told to isolate. It was so irresponsible.”

Jane argues that her job, which is computer and phone-based, can be done easily from home. She feels that she is only following government guidelines. 

However, she says her boss wants her to come back in and she cannot hold out much longer: “I have a mortgage to pay, I can’t risk losing my home.” 

Under current lockdown restrictions, people across the UK who can work effectively from home should do so, including in areas such as healthcare.

Construction workers in masks

But there are concerns that bosses are breaking Covid safety rules, with the head of the UK’s unions calling for tougher enforcement.

Between 6 and 14 January, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) received 3,934 complaints relating to coronavirus and took enforcement action in 81 cases. 

That usually meant a verbal or written warning however, with only one company facing tougher action. 

Policing can be a problem as well, as some workers fear reprisals if they speak up. 

George says he works in the office of a construction firm where social distancing rules “are ignored or undermined”. He is torn about whether to complain. 

Worker getting temperature checked

He and 10 close colleagues could all do their jobs easily from home – and did so during the first lockdown – but that is not an option this time, even though half of them are over 60, with two people in the high-risk category. 

“I was given a template letter saying we are unable to work from home, despite all of us having done so easily for six months prior,” he tells the BBC.

“There’s only one way to report this internally and doing that clearly flags you for redundancy.”

He says the situation forces you to “weigh up having a job in the pandemic, or standing up for what you think is right”. 

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What are the rules on going to work?

Under current lockdown restrictions, people across the UK who can work effectively from home should do so. They should only travel to their workplace if they cannot do their job remotely.

This includes healthcare professionals, teachers, childcare providers, transport workers, people who work in construction or manufacturing, funeral directors, and essential retail workers.

For workplaces that remain open in England, employers must “carry out an appropriate Covid-19 risk assessment” to develop a “specific” strategy to stop the virus’s spread.

In England, guidelines set out strict measures which employers must follow, such as minimising the number of unnecessary visits to the office, frequent cleaning of workspaces and ensuring that staff observe 2m (6ft) social distancing wherever possible.

There is similar guidance for employers across a range of sectors in ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland.

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The HSE, which has done 33,000 site visits since March, told the BBC it continued to “scale up” its checks on employers. 

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) wants the government to strengthen enforcement and give the HSE more resources. 

Some say nothing will change, unless the government changes the rules to ensure only people doing essential work go in. 

John (not his real name) from Gloucester is part of a team installing smart meters in people’s homes for SSE, the energy company owned by Ovo. 

Construction workers having temperatures checked

He tells the BBC he doesn’t feel safe doing the job, which requires him to go into five or six people’s homes each day, usually for several hours at a time.

And while he accepts his job cannot be done from home, he thinks energy suppliers should only be doing essential emergency work as they did during the first lockdown, not installing smart meters which are largely about improving energy efficiency.

“We all know the quickest way to spread a virus is contact,” he tells the BBC, adding that he thinks staff like him should be furloughed.

“They have given us face coverings and gloves, but NHS staff wear high grade PPE and yet they are still dying.” 

An SSE spokeswoman said the safety and wellbeing of staff was its “primary focus” and that the firm was open to discussing furlough options with staff.

“We have created rigorous protocols for working in homes including the opportunity for both the engineer or customer to cancel an appointment, or abort a job, if they do not feel comfortable,” she said. 

‘Makes no sense’

Steve, who spent the last three months working at a fulfilment warehouse in Stoke-on-Trent, says he was shocked by the disregard for coronavirus rules at the site.

He said social distancing was “non-existent”, with people working “side by side”, but when he complained the managers did nothing. 

“They were more interested in getting the product out,” he adds.

However, he felt he had no choice but to keep working, even when he learned that someone in the warehouse canteen had come down with Covid. 

A spokesman for the government says it has worked with trade unions, businesses and medical experts to produce “comprehensive Covid-secure guidance”, so that businesses permitted to remain open can do so safely: “This is kept under review as our understanding of the virus develops.”

By Daniel Thomas
Business reporter

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