Council outsourcer Norse Medway has been slammed for citing cholera as a reason to disregard coronavirus social distancing and safety measures for refuse workers in Kent, some of who are being forced to work four to a cab without personal protection equipment. 

Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest union, today (Monday 30 March) said that during a conference call in which the union suggested that refuse services be scaled back to allow social distancing to take place, the firm replied that this could spark an outbreak of cholera.

The union, which has photographic evidence of workers cramped together in lorry cabs, said the cholera response typified the firm’s ‘dangerous and stupid’ approach to coronavirus safety and criticised Medway council, including leader Alan Jarrett, for ignoring serious health and safety breaches going on ‘right under its nose’

Unite has more than 150 members at Norse Medway, which operates refuse collection, street cleaning, crematorium, gardening and other services for Medway council.

In addition to refusing to medically suspend at risk workers, such as those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as those who need to self-isolate, Norse Medway has neglected to implement safety protocols that have been introduced elsewhere. 

The union has tried repeatedly to work with Norse’s leadership locally and nationally on these matters – even providing Norse Medway with a list of staff who have underlying health conditions after the firm failed to engage workers on the issue – and has also approached Medway council. 

Unite regional officer Phil Silkstone said: “Other councils and providers have put in place various measures, such as two people to a cab, supplying wipes and hand sanitiser and allowing loaders to meet out on routes to avoid sitting in cabs and restrict social gathering in yards.

“Norse Medway have done none of this and are intent that refuse staff carry on as normal. When it was put to them that services be scaled back to allow for social distancing to take place, Unite was told this could risk an outbreak of cholera. This response typifies the firm’s dangerous and stupid approach to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Absolutely no effort was made until recently on the part of Norse Medway to identify or communicate with staff who have underlying health conditions. Like those who need to self-isolate, workers with health concerns at Norse Medway are not being provided with medical suspensions on full pay. Instead they are being put on statutory sick pay, even while Medway council employees in the same position get full pay. This is encouraging staff, who would otherwise stay off to protect themselves and others, to carry on working because of the dramatic drop in their incomes.

“The men and women employed at Norse Medway, their families and the wider community, are being put in danger because of a dereliction of the management’s duty. This needs to change immediately. Medway council, including leader Alan Jarrett, is also responsible for this situation because so far it has failed to intervene on serious health and safety breaches going on right under its nose. The council needs to resolve these problems now."


Notes to editors: 

Norse Medway slammed for ‘uncaring’ and ‘dangerous’ approach to coronavirus safety

For more about Unite's work during the coronavirus crisis to keep workers and the public safe, and to protect jobs and incomes, click here.

For more information please contact Unite communications officer Ryan Fletcher on 07849 090215.

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Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.