Review calls for duty to report occupational coronavirus infections and deaths

Requirement for employers to publish Covid-19 risk assessments on a central portal also urged, as ethnic minorities are found to be more exposed at work

A major review has called on the government to create a duty for employers to report occupational infections and deaths from coronavirus, stating that its failure to ensure workplaces were Covid secure has had a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority workers.

This new duty would be in line with existing health and safety requirements for other deaths and injuries at work, with the review also recommending the government create “a legal requirement for employers to publish their Covid-19 risk assessments on a central government portal”. 

The review on the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority communities, by Baroness Doreen Lawrence and commissioned by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, said the virus had “thrived on inequalities that have long scarred British society”, and called on the government to do more to protect employees. 

It said ethnic minority individuals were “more likely to work in frontline or shutdown sectors, which have been overexposed to Covid-19”, and were disproportionately represented in sectors where home working was not possible, or where jobs were low paid and insecure. This meant they were more exposed to the virus and less able to self-isolate if they caught it, and had “suffered disproportionately from the government’s failure to facilitate Covid-secure workplaces”, the report said.

In the review’s foreword, Lawrence said: “Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have been overexposed, under-protected, stigmatised and overlooked during this pandemic – and this has been generations in the making.

“The impact of Covid is not random, but foreseeable and inevitable, the consequence of decades of structural injustice, inequality and discrimination that blights our society," she said.

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In response to the review, the government said a range of factors resulted in different groups being at higher risk from the virus, and that it was important to identify the root causes of these disparities.

Matthew Holder, interim head of policy and engagement at the British Safety Council – the health and safety watchdog – said it was “crucial” workplace-related Covid-19 cases were properly recorded. “There is still too much confusion about the obligations on employers to report cases at work and the government should raise awareness of this requirement, backed up by more enforcement action by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE),” he said.

The review also highlighted issues around personal protective equipment (PPE). “Many respondents told us about inadequate PPE, failures to implement and access risk assessments and insufficient government guidance on their protection,” it said, recommending the government advise employers in high-risk settings that they should provide PPE for staff where a risk assessment required it.

“The failure to properly provide PPE to workers at risk is a health and safety issue usually addressed by the HSE – but no action has been reported against any employer, or the government,” added Holder.

Sandra Kerr, race director at Business in the Community, backed the call for greater accountability and transparency and said employers had a responsibility to do everything possible to protect their workers. “Being transparent and taking greater responsibility for risk assessments to keep employees in the workplace safe will have an impact on employee confidence and feelings of safety when they go into the workplace,” she said.

“Covid-19 has found a fertile ground in structural racism. Baroness Lawrence’s report is a powerful exposé of how discrimination continues to fracture our communities daily.”

In response to the report, a government spokesperson said: “The current evidence shows that a range of factors result in different groups being at an increased risk of infection and death from Covid-19 – from exposure in the workplace, to pre-existing health conditions.

“For this reason we must be careful to identify the root causes of the disparities we’re seeing and not assume they are evidence of discrimination or unfair treatment.”

The spokesperson declined to comment on whether the government agreed with the review’s recommendations.

A spokesperson for the HSE said there was already legislation in place requiring businesses to report transmissions occurring in the workplace: “There are clear legal duties for employers to report cases where there is reasonable evidence suggesting that a work-related exposure was the likely cause of coronavirus.

“We firmly encourage employers and workers to ensure concerns relating to coronavirus are actively raised and brought to HSE’s attention if required. Firm action will be taken where appropriate.”

The spokesperson added that HSE had been working actively on the issue of PPE and provided “round-the-clock advice and assurance” to health services at the height of the supply shortages: “It was as a result of our checks that we caught a lot of PPE that wasn’t safe and wouldn’t have protected people.”