UNISON calls for lockdown halt to non-essential water work

In a letter to the water minister, UNISON says that revised COVID-19 guidance on close contacts means the government should tell the water industry to pause some work.

UNISON is calling on the Westminster government to pause non-essential work by the water industry during the latest lockdown, in order to protect employees and help to reduce transmission of COVID-19.

In a letter to Rebecca Pow, the Parliamentary under-secretary of state for rural affairs and biosecurity, who has ministerial responsibility for water, the union says that recent government guidance acknowledges that close contact can include “numerous small contacts within a day”.

The revised guidance recognises that workers who are in constant short contact with other people are both at risk of contracting the new variant strains of the coronavirus themselves and are at risk of spreading it.

Water quality officers and network customer technicians are among those whose roles are causing concern: these workers visit homes and take water samples from taps to test for discolouration and leakage.

However, the water industry has not stopped all such work, despite the risks of repeated close contacts.

Having also written to regulator Ofwat about the issue, Donna Rowe-Merriman, the union’s national secretary for business, community and environment, said: “UNISON believes that the risk assessments currently in place across the water industry needs to be re-evaluated in view of the increased hazard to those workers on the frontline.

“Risk assessment is about employers taking all the steps to eliminate or reduce the risk of a hazard being realised, something UNISON believes employers are failing to do.”

John Jones, a member of UNISON’s national executive council for the water, environment and transport service group, noted: “In the current pandemic, during lockdown conditions, non-essential tasks should not be taking place.

“Our concern is that most of the activities these groups of workers are required to do are non-essential. I would urgently request that these activities are stopped at the direction of the government and Ofwat, for as long as the current lockdown persists.”

And he concluded: “This will hopefully play a part in establishing a downward trend in transmission of the virus and enable a more rapid return to normal economic activity.”