Boris Johnson has spent much of the past month harping on one message: Get out of your bedroom and back to work.
The prime minister’s plea for British workers to return to crowded commutes, meal deals and early mornings has not been met with much uptake. So, in a fresh effort to nudge everyone into carriages and offices, the government planned to launch a (now-delayed) “back to work” campaign last week.
Cabinet ministers have also been trying to convince the public that all will be safe and sound in the office. “We’re saying to people it is now safe to return to work,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told workers in August. “Your employers will have, should have, carried out work to make your employment place Covid-secure.”
Health and Safety Executive inspectors are the civil servants tasked with checking whether businesses have or “should have” made workplaces Covid-secure. As the rest of us return to the office, they will be running spot checks to make sure we’re all working in safe, clean and socially distanced spaces. In theory, they will also be doing their usual checks for non-Covid hazards on building sites, factory floors and other risky workplaces.
That’s the theory. In reality, inspectors and their trade union fear that a decade of swingeing cuts to HSE have left the agency unprepared to deal with the huge mission in front of it. “The reality is that for a long time now, Covid or not, there has not been the coverage,” Prospect union HSE branch chair Neil Hope-Collins told Tribune. “HSE has had to respond to a lack of resource by focusing its inspections in essentially whack-a-mole.”
Prospect’s General Secretary Mike Clancy also warned that staff at the agency were overstretched and unable to properly enforce safety rules amid the ongoing pandemic. “Ten years of cuts to the Health and Safety Executive have left it in the position that it doesn’t have enough inspectors to effectively police health and safety standards across the entire economy,” he said in a statement. “Morale is low but the pressure on staff is huge.”
According to House of Commons Library data, HSE’s funding was chopped from £239m to £136m between 2009 and 2018. Staff numbers took a similar dive over the same period, with the number of inspectors falling from almost 1,500 to 978 in less than ten years.
Prospect’s own figures are even more alarming. The union claimed there were only 390 full-time equivalent main grade inspectors available across the entirety of the U.K. at the start of last month. And it’s this threadbare team that is now expected to handle all their old work and thousands of new Covid inspections.
Figures published by the Works and Pensions Select Committee in June showed the HSE had received more than 6,000 concerns about Covid-related workplace safety issues. A little less than 2,700 of those were not straightforward and needed to be looked at by inspectors in the field, taking up already limited time and resources.
“If my members are out doing Covid inspections, they can’t be doing any other inspections,” Hope-Collins told Tribune. “I know it’s kind of stating the bleeding obvious, but… with limited resource, and it is very limited resource, if inspectors are going to Bradford because there was a hotspot, they won’t be inspecting in Leeds.” He added that teams in his area were only dealing with “real emergency stuff” beyond their Covid check-up rounds.
Attempting to ease fears about the HSE’s ability to cope with Covid inspections, Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the House of Commons in May that the government would be making an extra £14 million available to the agency for spending on call center staff, the rehiring of former inspectors and any necessary equipment.
But does the fund even come close to plugging the gap left by a decade of cuts totaling at more than £100 million? A HSE spokesperson said the funding had “significantly helped” its pandemic response efforts and “bolstered” the agency’s inspections and call centre capacity. But union officials take a different view.
“There are no short-term solutions to this problem,” Clancy said. “We need prolonged investment in HSE and a coordinated drive to retain, recruit and train more inspectors.” Hope-Collins said the extra funding was a “nice soundbite” for the government but would do little to alleviate the pressure on inspectors, noting that only a few ex-inspectors had been brought back into the service over the past three months.
“The bit that really gets lost is that it takes a minimum of five years to train an inspector,” he said. “Because so much of it is judgement based, it isn’t tick-box, it isn’t black and white, it takes a long time to teach people how to make those judgements in a responsible, proportionate, practical way. Any of the money this year, even if they did allow it to be spent on future permanent staff, wouldn’t make any difference for at least five years.”
Inspectors don’t have the luxury of five years. The public health crisis in front of them needs immediate attention and a lot of it — a fact not lost on frustrated staff who feel “beaten into submission” by the massive expectations placed on their important but underfunded agency.
“There is a kind of fatalistic ‘what can we do about this?’ And it is a real problem, tinged with masses of frustration,” Hope-Collins said. He added that mental health issues were a big cause of long term absences among staff struggling under the intense workplace pressures.
“The worry many inspectors have is that if Covid case numbers tick up in the coming months, inevitably some of it will be linked to workplaces and the government will be looking for someone to blame,” Prospect’s General Secretary Clancy explained. “As we have already seen with Public Health England and senior civil servants, when it comes to blame this government will always seek to throw someone else to the wolves rather than accept responsibility for its own failings.”
The HSE disputes this. “Our people are our greatest asset and we put their health, safety and wellbeing first,” a spokesperson said. “Demands on us will remain at a high level and we are taking the necessary steps using the funding boost to increase our capacity to meet these challenges.”
However, the risk posed to the public when the government’s health and safety enforcer hasn’t got the manpower needed to uphold safety law is clear. Businesses eager to cut corners will feel emboldened to flout rules of all stripes with little fear of inspectors knocking on their door.
“There is an argument that workplaces are so rarely inspected that it’s probably more likely that you’ll win the lottery than be visited by an inspector,” the British Safety Council Chair Lawrence Waterman told the BBC.
“The picture that starts to evolve in my head is this kind of traveling posse that just runs around the country going ‘oh we’ll go over here, oh no we have to go over here now,’” Hope-Collins told Tribune. “It’s not quite Monty Python, but it might be getting that way.”