Branch Secretary : suz.muna.unite@gmail.com
  

Coronavirus: testing must include homelessness workers

Deadly consequences

 

Working as a rep in a homelessness organisation I welcome the government’s plans to expand testing to cover frontline social care staff. However, it needs to explicitly include frontline homelessness staff if we are to prevent unnecessary deaths. Unite reps have called for an extension of testing and we welcome the call for clarity on this issue by Homeless Link.

 

As more evidence emerges that prolonged exposure to COVID-19 makes it more likely you may suffer more severe or even deadly consequences of the virus, my colleagues have become increasingly worried.  Facilitating mass testing will help staff to self-isolate quickly and reduce their exposure.

 

Employment Act disputed

 

Just as important as this however is the increased protection it provides clients. People who are homeless some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19 as they are more likely to have poor health and underlying conditions that place them at risk. For a keyworker in a hostel it is normal to speak to many clients in one day. Studies have shown that the large majority of those infected are asymptomatic, staff may be unwittingly exposing vulnerable people to the virus.

 

The deadly consequences of this are already being seen in care homes across the UK where up to 6,000 people are estimated to have died. This is why it is concerning to see management failing to provide PPE or enact proper health and safety procedures at St Mungo’s, one of the UK’s biggest homelessness organisations. Disgracefully, St Mungo’s management have chosen to dispute the applicability of Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act which protects workers who refuse to put themselves danger. St Mungo’s Unite reps are right to make it clear to management that the legislation does apply and that Unite will back workers who are forced to relay on it.

 

Unclear guidance

 

St Mungos have also refused to schedule regular meetings with the union because they are in dispute on another issue. Rather than disputing this, St Mungo’s management would be better occupied getting vital PPE to their staff and making sure that their message to managers is clear about the need for safe working.

 

Proper health and safety procedures combined with regular testing are needed to help prevent the death toll seen in care homes being repeated in the homelessness sector and ensure the safety of workers and clients. It is ridiculous that the guidance is unclear - stating it applies to ‘frontline local authority staff’ who are working with ‘the homeless and rough sleepers’. As the majority of work with people experiencing homelessness is undertaken by the voluntary sector this would provide little support for some of the most vulnerable in society.

 

This guidance needs to be changed to explicitly include frontline workers in the voluntary sector. Only by combining mass testing with proper health and safety procedures can we make these environments safe for clients and staff.

 

Jack Jeffery, branch secretary.

 

April 19th 2020

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