Portsmouth council has been accused of needlessly exposing its council housing tenants and outsourced workers to potential exposure to Covid-19.

Safety fears

Unite, the UK’s leading union, has become increasingly alarmed that workers at Comserve, Portsmouth council’s outsourced building maintenance division, who are responsible for maintaining the local authorities housing stock are being forced to continue to undertake routine maintenance work in tenant’s homes.

By being forced to undertake routine maintenance work in occupied properties, tenants, workers and their families are at increased risk of being exposed to contracting and transmitting Covid-19. It will also result in higher rates of transmission in Portsmouth as a whole.

Council responsibility

As the client, Unite believes that Liberal Democrat led Portsmouth council, could simply instruct Comserve not to undertake routine maintenance work, but it has chosen not to do so.

The demand to undertake routine maintenance in occupied homes is entirely contrary to the guidance that Unite has issued (see notes for editors) and is being widely followed by most council and reputable maintenance organisations. The guidance states that during the lockdown only emergency repairs and maintenance work in void (empty) properties (under strict social distancing rules) should be undertaken.

Double standards

Unite believes that Portsmouth council is applying different standards for its directly employed staff, who have strict instructions not to enter people’s homes compared to its outsourced staff who are being forced into exactly these scenarios.

Unite is also demanding that clear rules are put in place to allow workers to exercise their legal right to refuse to undertake work if they believe their health is at risk, for instance if tenants cannot or will not socially distance.

Concerns ignored

Unite has raised its concerns on behalf of its members at Conserve with both the management at the company and the council without success,

Unite is publicising the matter ahead of a meeting of a meeting between Portsmouth City Council and Comserve on Thursday 4 February where it is hoped that the authority will finally see reason and end the demand that routine maintenance is undertaken until it is safe to do so.

Reckless action

Unite regional officer Richard White said: “Portsmouth council and Comserve are recklessly putting the health of tenants, workers and their families at risk by forcing them to undertake routine maintenance work during the lockdown.

 “Our members are entirely prepared to undertake emergency work and continue working on void properties, but insisting they work in people’s homes, when that work does not have to be undertaken is both foolhardy and dangerous.

 “Portsmouth council is guilty of applying double standards, it has strict rules for its directly employed staff who must not enter people’s homes while at the same time insisting outsourced workers do exactly that.

 “The council and its councillors need to come to their senses and place an immediate ban on routine maintenance work, until it is safe to do so.

 “Unite is committed to working with the council and Comserve to ensure that both tenants and workers are kept safe during the pandemic.

 “If the council fails to act, Unite will be issuing strict instructions to our members to exercise their legal right not to put themselves in danger.”

Concerns in other areas

While the majority of local authorities have introduced measures to ensure that only emergency work and essential maintenance is undertaken in occupied properties there have been problems in some areas. A ballot for industrial action in Dundee was only narrowly averted when the council stopped demanding that non-essential works was undertaken.

While Clarion Housing one of the largest housing associations in London has also failed to protect workers by outlawing routine maintenance, despite pressure from Unite.


Notes to editors:

 Checklist for Members and Reps (Re Construction Tradespersons entering properties and occupied premises)

  • Unite supports local authorities and housing associations responding to emergency situations and essential maintenance only in occupied properties.


  • Planned maintenance work can be undertaken in vacant (void) properties provided risk assessments are conducted and strict social distancing measures are enforced at all times.


  • All necessary PPE supplied to workers who must have it before commencing work and completing jobs safely.


  • Employers must consult with trade union representatives when producing a risk assessment and the results of risk assessments shared with and communicated to employees. All existing risk assessments need to be reviewed and updated.


  • Unite reiterates the requirement for dynamic risk assessment which Includes an agreed stop work process, where the assessment highlights a serious risk. Incorporates method statements, including induction processes, being delivered remotely,utilising modern technology to update and inform all employees and workers prior to any works commencing.


  • Safe systems of work to be reviewed and updated in light of the increased transmission of the new Covid-19 variant. This to include workplace and travel to work policies


  • Involvement of Unite stewards and health and safety representatives in all safety discussions. Please see Unite coronavirus guide  


  • All employers must construct a stop work on health and safety grounds procedure. An employee who believes their safety is threatened can stop work, and work cannot be resumed until a solution is agreed. Develop these procedures with trade union representatives.


  • All employees afforded protection under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (the right to withdraw from a work area when faced with imminent risk to health/safety).


  • The right to decline work due to the failure of the responsible entity/person to ensure social distancing on site with no detriment to the worker.

During the coronavirus crisis Unite is working to keep workers and the public safe, to defend jobs and to protect incomes.

For media enquiries ONLY please contact Unite senior communications officer Barckley Sumner on 07802 329235 or 0203 371 2067.

Email: [email protected]

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