Outbreak waiting to happen

Unite warns of quarantine hotels outbreak risk and reiterates calls for union consultation and better health and safety provisions

Reading time: 8 min

As the government’s quarantine hotels policy went into effect this week, Unite has continued to raise serious concerns over hotel workers’ safety.

Since Monday (February 15) any British or Irish national arriving into England from 33 ‘red list’ countries must quarantine for 10 days in designated hotels arranged by the government at a cost to travelers of £1750.

In Scotland, arrivals from any country outside the Common Travel Area must quarantine in these designated government-arranged hotels, whereas in Wales, international arrivals must enter the UK through either England or Scotland and quarantine in hotels there before travelling to Wales.

The system was modeled after a hotel quarantine policy in Australia, but health and safety guidelines in UK quarantine hotels fall far short of those in Australia, where even with more stringent measures, Covid-19 outbreaks in quarantine hotels have still occurred, most recently in Melbourne.  

Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson told UniteLIVE that both government and hotel employers “have been totally close-lipped about what hotels they’re using, what guidelines they are using – we are only going off what has been leaked to the press”.

Despite the lack of transparency, leaked documents to the BBC and other news outlets have laid bare the health and safety risks posed to hotel workers.

Ventilation concerns

“In the UK, the guidelines that we’ve seen advise only surgical paper masks when we already know they are insufficient for protecting against airborne spores which is worsened by the ventilation system in a hotel,” Bryan explained. “In the winter this is even further exacerbated when the air conditioning system is set to heating mode and so creates a more conducive environment for the virus to spread.”

Indeed, the Guardian this week revealed how many of the ventilation systems in hotels near Heathrow Airport, which are understood to be among the quarantine hotels, actually risk causing an airborne virus outbreak.

Almost none of the hotels near the airport allow guests to open their windows and at least one hotel uses a heat exchange system where warm air is extracted from inside to raise the temperature of air brought in from the outside. This system is used for energy efficiency purposes but in the case of a potential Covid outbreak, the virus could quickly be spread to rooms across the hotel.

“If they’re quarantining people who potentially have Covid and hoping to use that kind of [heat exchange] system, there’s a problem,” Alyson Prince, an infection control specialist, told the Guardian. “There is some mix of air so there is crossover.”

It is understood that ventilation systems may have played a role in recent outbreaks in quarantine hotels in Australia.

Bryan said Unite is calling for masks on-par with those used in Australia – called N95 masks – whose British equivalent is FFP2 masks.

“We’re also calling for hotel workers to be issued with gloves and other protective equipment similar to what NHS workers wear such as aprons because we know the virus can be transferred through clothing,” he added.

‘Very risky’ approach

In the five days since the government introduced the hotel quarantine policy on Monday (February 15), there have been several reports by quarantine hotel guests that they have been permitted to leave their rooms for smoke breaks repeatedly throughout the day – despite government guidelines saying guests may only leave for exercise at the discretion of hotel security. Guests have been reportedly accompanied each time they leave their rooms by hotel security staff, risking exposure to staff.  

Australian epidemiologist Prof Mike Toole told the Telegraph that this approach was “very risky”, adding that he believed guests should stay in their rooms 24/7 and that hotel staff should be tested for the virus daily.

Bryan agreed.

“We have to remember that even in Australia where they were extremely careful, the virus still spread in their quarantine hotels – we have to learn the lessons from Australia,” he said.

“Residents should not be allowed to leave their rooms for trivial reasons and workers should definitely not be put at unnecessary risk by having to accompany them. In the Australian system they’re not allowed to leave the room at all – even when food is delivered customers cannot open their doors until the member of staff has left the corridor.”

Bryan pointed out that in Australia, quarantine hotel staff are tested daily before their shifts – and even in some cases after their shifts.

“They also have priority vaccinations – in Australia, hotel workers are seen to be frontline workers for the purposes of vaccinations and here they are not,” he added.

Sick pay

Perhaps the most vital difference between Australia and the UK are the respective countries’ sick pay policies – in Australia, workers can afford to self-isolate, whereas in the UK they cannot.

In Australia, even before the pandemic, all employees were entitled to 10 days’ sick pay, fully paid by their employer. While casual workers did not have recourse to paid sick leave before the pandemic, the Australian government has introduced in some states where Covid-19 cases are high a $1500 (£841) emergency payment for any worker – whether employed or on a casual contract – to self-isolate for two weeks.

In the UK, despite repeated calls from Unite and other unions as well as Labour, workers only have recourse to statutory sick pay of £95 a week – which falls far below what’s needed for even the most basic standard of living. Compared to the Australian emergency payment, this is less than a quarter of what British workers are entitled to if they fall sick and must self-isolate.

Even the UK government’s much-vaunted £500 two-week self- isolation payment, whose eligibility is very restrictive, falls far short of Australia’s – and the vast majority who have applied for the payment have been denied.

“It’s just a reality that if workers cannot afford to self-isolate they won’t – and in the case of quarantine hotels this is another risk factor for an outbreak,” Bryan noted.

“Unite will continue to make calls for greater health and safety protections for hotel workers – that customers will have absolutely no contact with staff, that there will be militant adherence to social distancing, daily testing, full sick pay and that workers are given priority for vaccinations,” he added.

“We’ve been making many of these calls since September for the whole industry as part of Unite’s hospitality rescue package.

Transparency and consultation call

Beyond health and safety considerations, Unite is also calling for transparency and above all consultation.

“It is shameful that Unite – which represents 80 to 90 per cent of unionised hotel workers in the UK – was not once consulted as the government and hotel employers drew up quarantine hotel plans,” Bryan added. “All of this would have been resolved if the government and employers had simply picked up the phone and spoken to us.”

For those hotel workers who are rightly worried about the risks they face in work, Bryan has an important message for them.  

“You have a legal right to withdraw your labour in instances where you’re health and safety is being put at direct risk under Employment Rights Act,” he said. “If you’re in the union, get together with your colleagues to collectively demand adherence to basic health and safety provisions and other enhanced measures like full sick pay. And if you’re not in the union – join a union. Through organised, collective action we can demand change.”

You can find out more about Unite Hospitality on our website here. You can also read more about Unite’s Hospitality Rescue Package here.

By Hajera Blagg

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