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Covid-19: Work-related Cases

Volume 813: debated on Monday 5 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Trades Union Congress RIDDOR, Covid and underreporting, published on 23 May; and what steps they plan to take in response to the finding that work-related cases of COVID-19 leading to deaths have been underreported.

RIDDOR requires responsible persons, usually employers in relation to employees, to report certain Covid-19 cases to the relevant enforcing authority. Over 33,000 cases have been reported since 10 April 2020. Not all cases of Covid-19 involving employees are reportable, only those where there is reasonable evidence that an occupational exposure at work led to infection. The Health and Safety Executive has reviewed the TUC report and is considering what, if any, additional action is required.

My Lords, RIDDOR should play an important role in collecting data on work-related injury and death as well as dangerous occurrences. It is not an optional arrangement. The mechanism requires a layer of accountability on employers and is a public record of works relating to offices and fatalities. However, matters are not proceeding as they should; it is not working well. There are various accounts of underreporting. I think the Minister has just accepted that this underreporting has been around for some time, and perhaps we can be told why action has not been taken previously. I welcome the news that the HSE is going to get involved and look further at this issue.

Given the complex system in which transmission of the virus occurs, it is extremely difficult to accurately identify the actual transmission point for any individual, and no one system—for example, RIDDOR—enables this attribution to be made.

RIDDOR provides an important source of intelligence about occupational exposure to coronavirus in the workplace but is not the only source of intelligence that the HSE relies on. In addition to RIDDOR in the reporting of occupational cases of Covid-19, Public Health England is the lead government body for monitoring infection rates and the scale and spread of infections more widely, both in the community and in workplace settings. The HSE has worked and will continue to work closely with Public Health England throughout the pandemic.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that underreporting may be a consequence of HSE advice? Regulation 9 requires a case of Covid in the workforce to be reported if

“attributed to an occupational exposure”.

The HSE advice is that employers

“do not need to conduct extensive enquiries in seeking to determine whether a COVID-19 infection is work-related. The judgement should be made on the basis of the information available.”

That advice surely misleads. The regulation requires some investigation, at least into whether the worker, her colleagues or the safety rep attributes Covid to work.

The Health and Safety Executive guidance, with advice from the Government Legal Department, does not exclude the reporting of cases of workers whose job involves dealing with the public. RIDDOR places a duty to report on the employer, and they must make a judgment based on the information they have. The Health and Safety Executive has never publicly stated that Regulation 9(b) or its supporting guidance has been misapplied.

Does the Minister recognise that the severe cuts to the HSE have led to fewer inspections and, as a result, more underreporting? What plan do the Government have to reinstate the HSE budget?

I am pleased to say that the Health and Safety Executive has had additional funding throughout the year along with enormous staff increases. This will continue to be worked on, and the HSE and the DWP continue to review and revise the resourcing arrangements as necessary.

My Lords, may I press the Minister a little further on her previous reply? The TUC report found that there was likely to have been significant underreporting in the number of work-related Covid deaths, arguing that it was just not credible that only 2.5% of working-age Covid deaths were down to occupational exposure. Does she believe that funding cuts of 46% to the HSE over the past decade, notwithstanding the short-term fix of a one-off payment, have impacted on reporting under RIDDOR as well as affecting the process of investigation?

There have been cuts to the budget in the past. That has been rectified and an increased budget has been put in place, as has an increased resourcing budget. As of the end of April, it had 2,670 staff. There has been an extra £14.2 million available to the HSE on top of its regular government funding. Additional funding has enabled it to continue to inspect significantly more workplaces.

My Lords, I welcome the extra funding for the HSE. I hope that noble Lords will recognise the difficulty, with a widespread pandemic, of identifying whether a particular infection is caused in one setting or another. Therefore, I would be grateful if my noble friend might give a little more information on the role that the HSE has played during the pandemic.

The HSE has been really busy and proactive during the pandemic in three key areas: regulating, by targeting businesses and organisations, to prevent workplace transmission; working with other government departments, developing, assisting and promulgating policy guidance and research; and providing other workplace regulatory functions, including market surveillance to ensure a safe supply chain.

My Lords, Covid-19 infections in food factories could be more than 30 times underreported. The HSE said that the figure lacked credibility. In transport, there were 608 Covid deaths among workers and only 10 notifications during a similar period, a rate of just 1%. These are shocking figures. Second only to Romania, we have had the highest level of cuts to inspectors since 2010, and many of these industries have extremely poor sickness absence pay. This lets employers off the hook and the Government are complicit in this appalling level of underreporting. What further action will the Government take to deal with this?

I will need to look to my noble friend Lady Vere, sitting to my left, to get some information about transport and Covid reporting there; she will like me for that. Given the number of Covid clusters among food and drink manufacturing workers towards the end of 2020, the HSE organised a series of proactive high-risk sector inspections to be carried out. Inspectors carried out 531 site visits and 58 remote inspections, 62 of which resulted in written correspondence. Inspection topics included ensuring that, in the organisation of work, changing and welfare areas allowed for social distancing proportionate to the situation.

My Lords, following on from the questions of the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Wilcox, will the Minister acknowledge that of 52,000 proactive site visits over Covid, only 12,000 were conducted by trained inspectors? This is less than a quarter: the rest were handled by outsourced contractors. Will she acknowledge that ventilation was not on the script of those outsourced contractors? Given what we know about aerosol transmission and our increasing understanding of the problem of ventilation, does she agree that this is yet another example of where outsourcing to less experienced, skilled and trained staff has really damaged the quality of service that people have received?

I ask the noble Baroness to allow me to go back to the department to talk about her outsourcing points. I would be very surprised if we outsourced to people who were not up to the job, but I will write to her.