As over a 100,000 lie dead from Covid-19, and more die by the day, the importance of protecting workers and communities from this deadly virus has never been more vital. But on Wednesday night, bosses in the fire and rescue service pulled the rug from underneath the very firefighters who have been helping the NHS and care sector through the pandemic.
For ten months, an agreement between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and employers has allowed firefighters to safely assist their communities through this crisis. Across the country, while many firefighters continued to tackle fires, floods, and other hazardous incidents, we helped firefighter volunteers to swap their fire engines for ambulances, step in to stem infections in care homes, deliver essential items to the vulnerable, and move the bodies of the deceased.
Throughout, our union has worked with the National Employers (comprised of councillors from fire authorities in England and Wales and fire board appointees from Scotland and Northern Ireland) and the National Fire Chiefs Council (representing Chief Fire Officers) to ensure the highest safety standards possible.
Despite losing the first firefighter to this deadly disease earlier in January, there have been relatively few infections in the fire and rescue service compared with other frontline services. And that’s down to the work of FBU reps in every fire and rescue workplace ensuring safety measures are properly implemented.
Crucially, firefighters returning from high-risk environments must receive a negative coronavirus PCR swab test before they re-join their colleagues at their fire station. This has stopped firefighters from spreading the disease to the members of the public they assist and has prevented mass outbreaks among staff, protecting community fire cover.
But in recent weeks, it has become clear that bosses have no interest in protecting firefighters from spreading the disease. They decided they did not want firefighters to have to wait for a negative test result before returning to normal duties. The FBU proposed a range of alternative safety measures, but employers rejected every single one.
And then on Wednesday evening, while FBU officials were still trying to find a compromise, fire service employers unilaterally withdrew from the agreement.
In my many years in the fire service and as a trade unionist, I have seen plenty of reckless actions from employers. But to see a national employers’ body suddenly decide to remove agreed national safety standards and abdicate responsibility for firefighter safety in the middle of a pandemic must be a new low.
Make no mistake, this is a blatantly political action. Employers have been advised by the National Fire Chiefs Council, who in turn are in close communication with the Home Office. This is a case of bosses and the Tory government choosing a time when communities are most vulnerable – and when firefighters want to do all they can to help – to stick the boot into a trade union.
They don’t like having to meet basic safety standards. They don’t like having to negotiate before throwing firefighters into dangerous situations. Fundamentally, they don’t like having to work with the democratic voice of those on the frontline. They want to water down standards nationally to allow a race to the bottom locally.
The great tragedy is that this agreement was, until now, a model of how unions and employers can work together to ensure workers are safe – even in the most dangerous of situations. We are proud to have supported firefighters to safely volunteer to help the NHS and care sector. But employers seem all too happy to throw it all away.
FBU officials are trying to keep negotiations alive and revive the agreement. But we need the support of the entire labour and trade union movement to get there. There are Labour Party councillors within the fire service’s National Employers and there are Labour fire authority members across the country. They can and must speak up for this agreement.
We need employers to urgently get back around the negotiating table and stop a free-for-all on safety protections. These may be the darkest days of this global pandemic. Never in modern history have our health and social care systems been under such strain. And the FBU wants firefighters to keep up this life-saving work. But it must be safe for them, for their families, and for the public.