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Unite says workers’ safety must be paramount as virus spreads

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As confirmed coronavirus cases have quickly risen in the UK to 373, with Sunday (March 8) seeing the biggest one-day rise of 69 cases, prime minister Boris Johnson convened a second emergency Cobra meeting on Monday (March 9).


After the meeting, the government has said it is still pursuing attempts to contain the virus but may within the next week or two move to the ‘delay’ phase. This could include stronger public health measures such as requiring all people with even mild cold symptoms to stay at home.


Unite has raised a number of issues this week that could affect its members as the coronavirus outbreak spreads.


On Monday (March 9) Unite highlighted that despite the government pledging to relax statutory sick pay (SSP) rules amid the outbreak, pledging to provide it from day one, many workers still have no recourse to decent sick pay if they fall ill or must self-isolate.


In construction, for example, many workers are covered by both statutory sick pay and industry collective agreements. But if these construction workers needed to self-isolate to slow the transmission of the virus, even if they did immediately get SSP, worth only £94.25 a week, they would have to wait two weeks before collective agreements kick in.


For many workers in construction, industry sick pay can be up to £180 extra week. Given the extra two weeks these workers must wait to get the industry sick pay that will enable them to make ends meet, Unite said it fears many workers will fail to self-isolate.


Unite has written to the employers involved in the various industrial agreements including the Construction Industry Joint Council (for civil engineering), the Joint Industry Board (for electricians) the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI), the Joint Industry Board: Plumbing and the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVCA)/ Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) agreement, asking that industry sick pay is also paid from day one.


Changes to industry sick pay would protect several hundred thousand construction workers including those working on major projects such as Crossrail, Hinkley Point and HS2.


Unite national officer for construction Jerry Swain in the building and civil engineering sector said, “The custodians of the construction industry, who talk about the need for social responsibility must demonstrate they will do the right thing.


“There is a great deal of worry and fear about the coronavirus and it would be perverse if action was not taken to ensure that construction workers can take the appropriate measures to protect fellow workers and local communities from potentially being infected,” he added.


Unite national officer for construction in the mechanical and electrical sector Ian Woodland added, “Construction employers must step up to the plate and take the responsible decision to start paying industry sick pay from day one.


“A failure to do so would demonstrate that construction employers are not genuine when they suggest they are serious in tackling coronavirus.”


Lorry driver safety call

Meanwhile, Unite has raised alarm bells over lorry drivers’ safety after the government announced on Sunday (March 8) that it is extending the hours supermarkets can receive deliveries to help them cope with the flood in demand amid the coronavirus outbreak. Normally, overnight deliveries are banned so as not to disturb local residents.


Since the decision to relax delivery rules, there has been repeated suggestions the government will follow suit suspending the regulations governing the maximum number of hours a lorry driver can drive for.


While Unite has acknowledged the need to be flexible as the virus spreads, the union has said this cannot happen at the expense of lorry drivers’ safety if they are asked to work longer hours.


Unite national officer Adrian Jones said, “If changes in normal working practices are required than Unite believes that employers should enter into negotiations with Unite, to reassure drivers their safety is not being compromised.


“If the government does decide to change the driving regulations this should be done in full co-operation with Unite and the industry. Changes should be kept to a minimum and should be for a clearly defined period,” he added.


“Drivers already report high levels of fatigue and exhaustion during their normal working time, which affects their physical and mental health as well as their family life and relationships. Lifting the regulations, without proper safeguards, will put more strain on them which could result in them being a danger to other road users and themselves.”


Last week, UniteLive shined a spotlight on sick pay amid the coronavirus outbreak and also highlighted how NHS health staff are coping with the virus’ spread.


Stay tuned on UniteLive for the latest updates on how coronavirus will affect the workplace and the union’s members.

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