Covid-19 has upended our notion of what a dangerous job looks like. Builders, miners and quarry workers always lived with a certain amount of risk. But in the coronavirus economy, care homes are the new coal mines. Other ordinary jobs are suddenly perilous too. Chefs, security guards, taxi drivers and shop assistants are dying at higher than average rates from Covid-19 in the UK. The British government, desperate to revive the economy, has told millions to return to work. Little wonder many are scared to do so.
Boris Johnson’s response has been to publish guidance for employers on how to protect workers, backed by the promise of regulatory enforcement. “We are going to insist that businesses across this country look after their workers and are Covid-secure,” the prime minister said this month. “The Health and Safety Executive [the regulator] will be enforcing that and we will have spot inspections to make sure that businesses are keeping their employees safe.”
The trouble is, Mr Johnson’s plan to restart the economy safely relies on a regulator that has been systematically weakened by his own party. After a Conservative-led coalition was elected in 2010, ministers promised a bonfire of red tape for “a more growth-focused, entrepreneurial” nation. “If we try to legislate out all risk, we will lose jobs to other places,” Conservative minister Chris Grayling explained in 2013.
“You should have as light a touch as possible, that is what the HSE was constantly being told,” a member of the HSE’s board at that time said. Funding has been cut by more than £100m since 2010 to some £130m. Its workforce shrank by one-third to about 2,400.
What has happened to the HSE is only half the story. The job of enforcing health and safety law is split between the HSE and the country’s 380 or so local authorities. The latter are responsible for “lower-risk” workplaces. Private care homes for the elderly, which Covid-19 has been ripping through, are their responsibility (the HSE takes the more medicalised nursing homes). Retail warehouses, shops and restaurants fall to local authority inspectors.
Yet the number of full-time equivalent local authority health and safety inspectors has halved since 2010 to just 480. My analysis of official data suggests more than 140 authorities employ fewer than one full-time equivalent inspector.
As well as cutting resources, the government told the HSE and local authorities in 2011 to reduce proactive inspections by one-third. A final progress report on the reforms shows the HSE complied and cut its spot checks to some 22,000 a year, while local authorities, crushed by austerity cuts, reduced theirs by 95 per cent to about 6,300.
So who exactly will perform Mr Johnson’s “spot checks”, especially in so-called lower-risk sectors, such as care homes that are clearly now high-risk? The HSE has failed to send me an answer. The regulator has been promised £14m of extra funding, which will help bolster call-centre staff. But it takes years to train new inspectors. “We’re struggling to find things HSE could spend it on that would do any good in the timescale,” said an HSE employee who is a representative for the trade union Prospect. “The government has suddenly said they want an immediate response, but the organisation has been so hollowed out over the years that it can’t provide an effective immediate response.”
The UK is not alone in facing this problem. In the US, the number of job safety inspectors is at its lowest since the 1970s. Yet we need decent enforcement of health and safety in the workplace more than ever: to protect those on the frontline, give people confidence to return to work as lockdowns ease, stop good employers from being undercut by bad ones, and make sure the resumption of economic activity does not trigger another wave of infection.
This pandemic should end the bluster about “red tape” once and for all. Strong regulators are not the enemy of a healthy economy, they are a precondition for it.
Get alerts on UK business & economy when a new story is published