The government has failed to provide details of the number of Covid deaths and cases reported by employers in the fire service, after being asked to do so in a Parliamentary Question and through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Health and Safety Executive.
This has aroused concern in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) that the government is hiding failure of fire and rescue service employers to report Covid figures properly. Employers, including in the fire service, have a legal obligation to report cases of Covid exposure, infection and deaths to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) where exposure occurs as a result of a person’s work.
The TUC has previously expressed concerns that widespread underreporting in relation to this legal obligation may be taking place across sectors, something the HSE has accepted.
The fire and rescue service is a public-facing service, where staff are at significant risk of both catching the disease and of passing it on to members of the public, and monitoring of the disease is therefore considered vital by the Fire Brigades Union.
Labour’s Grahame Morris MP asked the Home Office about the number of cases of the disease, death, dangerous occurrences and workplace outbreaks amongst fire and rescue service employees that have been reported by fire bosses, in a Parliamentary Question tabled on 8 July 2021. But minister Kit Malthouse MP replied with no figures in relation to these, on 15 July.
He did, however, say that ‘ministers receive regular updates on levels of Covid-19 related employee absence in fire and rescue services’, suggesting that the government has some relevant data – which it did not take the opportunity to share. Besides, workplace absence data alone does not indicate that employers are meeting their obligation to report cases of Covid-19 infection where exposure occurs as a result of a person’s work.
This is the second instance there has been a failure to provide details on the extent to which the disease has been present and reported by employers in the fire and rescue service, after the Health and Safety Executive refused to provide these details in response to an FOI request from the Fire Brigades Union on grounds of cost. In addition, approaches by FBU representatives locally to ensure cases are being reported has often been met with silence or refusal by some Chief Officers.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: ‘The repeated refusal to provide basic, up-to-date statistics on Covid and how it is reported in the fire and rescue service is a disgrace. It suggests that fire service employers aren’t reporting these cases correctly.
‘As front-line workers our members are risking their safety to go to work – not least when they perform extra Covid duties, such as transferring Covid patients and moving the bodies of the deceased, which they have done. The least the government can do is to help keep track of the situation, and provide data to improve working conditions and support those workers who need it. We have battled fire bosses throughout the pandemic to try and get them to put proper Covid safety measures in place, and to report workplace cases and outbreaks accurately. Unless cases are reported correctly, we simply cannot plan properly to keep firefighters safe.’
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