Questions about HSE refusal to shut workplaces over coronavirus risks

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warned that those employers who do not address the risks of the coronavirus transmission in the workplace will face fines or even prohibition notices, effectively shutting them down until the issues are appropriately addressed.

However, recently the Observer found that the HSE failed to shut down any workplaces that were putting employees and customers at risk of coronavirus, and there have been no Covid-related prohibition notices served by the watchdog, prompting calls that irresponsible employers put thousands of lives at risk and contributed to the faster spread of the disease, where over 3,500 outbreaks of the novel virus have been reported in the workplace so far.

In response to the allegations, the Government defended the HSE’s decision not to place coronavirus in the highest risk category, which ultimately resulted in no enforcement actions since the start of the pandemic.

The employment minister Mims Davies said that coronavirus was classified as “significant” rather than “serious” risk, as it “best supports inspectors in making sensible, proportionate regulatory decisions”. She also added that the effects of coronavirus were “non-permanent or reversible, non-progressive and any disability is temporary” for the working population as a whole.

Shadow employment minister Andy McDonald said that he was not satisfied with the explanation received from the Conservative minister or the HSE. He said: “It’s undoubted that citizens of our country, who are of working age, have gone out to work and lost their lives,”

“How you could describe Covid contracted in the workplace as being not serious but merely significant is absolutely beyond me.”

Speaking for the Observer, a HSE inspector who wished to remain anonymous said that it was very difficult to serve a prohibition notice as the HSE’s internal instructions have said that they would be very reluctant to support an inspector who served such a notice. He also added that some HSE staff were frustrated by the pressure put by the Government to keep the workplaces open and by the failure to take into account the risks to workers’ families.