Alarm raised over safety practices of private firms given Covid contracts

Andrew Kersley

Labour has urged the government to ensure private firms awarded contracts in the pandemic have Covid-secure workplaces after one such company was found to have endangered staff via multiple health and safety breaches.

A leaked report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that The Doctors’ Laboratory (TDL) broke health and safety law in its treatment of staff. The company has testing contracts with Superdrug, the Premier League and the government.

According to the HSE, the health of couriers who transport Covid tests for the company was put at risk as workers were only told to clean boxes used to transport samples once a week and socially distancing could not be followed in rest areas.

Noting that TDL’s Covid-19 risk assessment was “not suitable”, the report stated that couriers were not offered adequate training for the safe use of personal protective equipment and its guidance for the use of gloves was flawed.

Commenting on the leaked health and safety report by HSE, Labour’s shadow employment minister Seema Malhotra told LabourList: “Covid-secure workplaces are essential to the economic recovery.

“The public rightly expect employers, especially testing contractors, to do the right thing and ensure workplaces are safe. The number of health and safety inspectors have been cut by a third by this government.”

The Labour frontbencher concluded: “The government must make sure that companies it is giving contracts to in the fight against Covid-19 are following new workplace regulations themselves.”

Inspectors found that TDL couriers in May were not fully informed of proper PPE guidelines or given comprehensive guidance about how to handle spilt samples. This was described as “especially concerning” given the significant risk of contamination.

The HSE also raised concerns about a parking bay rest area where riders would struggle to socially distance, as well as a “specimen reception area” – a room measuring 1m by 1.5m – that constituted a “potential pinch point”.

TDL was instructed by HSE to pay a fee for its material breach of health and safety law. The firm is a key provider of Covid testing and couriers to the NHS and the Department for Health and Social Care, including through partnerships with London hospitals.

Despite the concerns raised in the report, an email from TDL chief executive David Byrne seen by LabourList confirms that the company has been offered a new contract by DHSC to create a high-volume Covid-19 testing facility.

TDL has accepted that improvements need to be made to its safety procedures. The company has stressed that there were PPE shortages during the period to which the investigation relates – the height of the pandemic in May – and government advice changed frequently at that time.

Reacting to the findings of the HSE report, a spokesperson for TDL said: “At the height of the pandemic new Covid-related guidance was issued on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis.

“Despite superhuman efforts by our safety team to implement these at speed, not every detail could be captured in real-time. Where points for improvement to our safety systems were highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive, they were fully accepted and implemented immediately.”

The HSE investigation was conducted as a response to concerns raised by couriers represented by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) trade union, which advocates for precarious workers and challenges practices in the gig economy.

TDL is one of a number of private contractors that has faced criticism for its role in the government’s coronavirus operations. Labour earlier this month accused the government of “rewarding private sector failings”.

Outsourcing firm Serco, which plays a key role in the UK’s contact tracing system, last month admitted that it only managed to reach 60% of those in contact with people who tested positive for Covid-19. It was responsible for a data breach in May.

Serco and Sitel, the two firms hired by the government to help run the national test and trace programme, are set to receive over £1bn for their work on the scheme. Serco receives 40% of its annual revenue from running UK public services.

Questions have also been raised about the relationship between the private firms hired to handle public health contracts during the pandemic and the Conservative Party after it was revealed that companies connected to party donors frequently benefited.

In one example, the government awarded contracts to produce PPE, worth £81.8m, to a company co-owned by former chair of the President’s Club David Meller, who has given tens of thousands of pounds to the Tories in the last decade.

LabourList has contacted the Health Department for comment.

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