Coronavirus: 'We are not working in safe conditions'

By Daniel Thomas
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Jay Patel

"We don't feel the conditions we have to work under are safe, we weren't given any protection from the Post Office. No hand sanitiser, gloves, no aprons or anything, we had to source them ourselves."

Jay Patel, 37, and his wife Nilam run a branch post office in Bournemouth and as "essential retailers" are staying open to serve their community.

But they are among many workers in the UK complaining that they are not being adequately protected against the coronavirus, amid a lack of clarity from the government.

The government has said anyone who cannot do their job from home should continue to go to work, as long as their employer follows Public Health England safety guidelines.

Many firms "do not know whether to stay open or to close", the director general of the CBI business organisation Carolyn Fairbairn said.

The Business committee said it had received more than 1,000 emails from staff who felt they should not be going into work but were too afraid to speak out for fear they would lose their jobs.

"From the evidence we've received it's clear that many businesses are still not doing the right thing," said Rachel Reeves, chair of the committee.

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Post offices are among a small group of "essential retailers" the government says are allowed to stay open during the the coronavirus outbreak.

However, from construction workers to front-line shop staff, many have expressed anger at being made to continue doing work that feels inessential or unsafe.

On Wednesday, staff at the bicycle repair chain Halfords launched an online petition after the chain vowed to keep shops open, but was accused of having inadequate safety measures in place.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bike shops have been classified as essential

Mr Patel says many customers are still using his post office for non-essential activities, such as returning clothes bought online.

And while the Post Office, for which he works as a franchisee, did give him £50 towards safety items in the end, he says it came too late, when everything had sold out. The firm also told him he could not refuse any transaction, even inessential ones.

"It means we are handling parcels we shouldn't, coming into close contact with the public, as well as doing the essential stuff like providing people's benefits which means handling dirty bank notes," Mr Patel says.

"I tell customers not to come in unless they have to, to keep two-metres apart, but the message isn't getting through. It is putting lives at risk."

A Post Office spokesman said its branches provided a vital lifeline for banking services as well as parcels and letters to be sent during the outbreak. He also said many Post Offices had floor markers and other information on posters to help customers stay two-metres apart, and that additional safety measures would be offered.

Not essential?

But James, who works at factory in London that makes high end components, says his firm is not sticking to the rules.

"There is only one shared hand sanitiser, I have my own but many people don't. The canteen is often busy, there's no way people are two-metres apart. Even on the shop floor we cross each others paths. No one is wearing masks."

He also believes that while some of what the factory does could be classed as essential, most of it is not, and yet his bosses are reluctant to scale back the 30-strong workforce.

This is despite the fact that the government has agreed to pay 80% of payrolled employees' salaries, up to £2,500 a month, if they are furloughed.

"People are worried, but the managers say they are following government guidelines, that manufacturing can stay open. I think they are worried they will lose business and that other factories will stay open.

"The government would make it a lot easier if it just stopped all non-essential manufacturing."

Staff payrises

Acknowledging the concerns, retailers such as Next and Amazon have offered some staff pay rises to keep working on site or overtime.

Next, whose High Street stores are all closed, said there were some items in its shops that had already been ordered and were promised to customers, so a small group of volunteers will pick them under "strict supervision and social distancing rules".

Image source, Getty Images

However, some workers have had to take matters into their own hands.

Jane, who works as a PA at construction firm, told the BBC that as of Monday this week, she and other administrative staff started working from home against the company's wishes.

"My boss in particular is not happy about this and believes I should still be travelling into London by public transport. The building sites are also still open," she said.

"I have been threatened with statutory sick pay if I do not come into the office, however I want to follow government guidelines and I also I live with someone who has an illness which makes them high risk. The company are currently looking at sacking staff or making staff redundant."

A government spokesman said: "We've been clear that employers must make all efforts to help people to work from home."

"We urge employers to listen to the concerns of their workforce and take socially responsible decisions."