openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Conservative governments have undermined health and safety for decades

The party has pushed anti-health and safety narratives and watered down regulations, leaving us unprepared for a pandemic.

Andrew Moretta David Whyte
7 May 2020
Boris Johnson visiting Watford General Hospital following his funding announcement
Boris Johnson boasted of shaking hands on the day his government was advised to warn against doing so to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
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Peter Summers/PA Wire/PA Images

For decades, UK governments have had little interest in improving health and safety legislation. But this week, Number 10 found itself in the unexpected position of drafting new guidelines for workplaces. 

The government is considering a number of health and safety measures to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus after easing lockdown restrictions including limits on the time colleagues spend in close proximity and personal protective equipment (PPE). As yet, there has been no detail on what PPE would be required and with shortages already forcing 40% of doctors to source their own, questions remain over how feasible the plans are.

PPE has never made the headlines quite like this. For years, personal protection wear was mentioned only in the media as evidence of health and safety “gone mad”. A classic from the Cameron years was the story of schoolchildren being forced to wear safety goggles while playing conkers. Despite the school’s headmaster later revealing it was a myth, Conservatives have subsequently used the anecdote to undermine workplace safety.  

Both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have for the past decade or so sought to justify the ideologically driven rolling back of occupational health and safety protection in these disingenuous, no nonsense terms. They belong to a long line of senior Conservative politicians (including George Osborne and Eric Pickles) who believe that health and safety has gone too far and that red tape should be put on the bonfire. Yet, as is becoming tragically apparent, the UK’s occupational safety and health regulations cannot cope with the challenges presented by the current crisis.  

Inspections are so rare now that the average workplace can expect an inspector to call less than once every 50 years.

The recent revelation that the number of UK health and safety inspectors has fallen by 50% in the past 10 years does not point to a particularly new trend. It followed a 50% fall in the previous decade. Inspections are so rare now that the average workplace can expect an inspector to call less than once every 50 years. In fact, there has been a 40-year long campaign by successive governments to undermine funding of the government’s watchdog, the Health and Safety Executive. At the same time, attacks on trade unions have resulted in the decline of union safety representatives and committees.  

The truth is that the UK has always resisted complying with international standards on health and safety, including PPE. In a new report launched this week, we have tracked the country’s dismissive attitude towards the very concept back four decades. Since the early 1980s, it has refused to sign the key UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) treaty on workplace safety. This treaty (the ILO’s 1981 Occupational Safety and Health Convention) has been ratified by 65 nations including Spain, Brazil and Nigeria. And when the treaty was drawn up, the UK government took particular issue to PPE, refusing to be bound by international standards.

Although we now do – largely thanks to the EU – have strict rules about the provision of PPE in the workplace, the British government still refuses to adhere to international law. Indeed, a more detailed analysis reveals that the UK is one of the least compliant in the world. The country has ratified only 6 of the 35 ‘up-to-date’ ILO health and safety protocols and conventions. In a league table of EU states’ support for those conventions and protocols, the UK lies 26 out of 28. Only Romania and Estonia have signed up to less. 

A withering disdain for all workplace safety standards is closer to the heart of British Conservatism than is normally acknowledged. The COVID crisis has exposed this very clearly. On the day that the government’s own scientific advisors were recommending warning people not to shake hands, Boris Johnson boasted about doing so with “everybody” at a hospital where there were confirmed coronavirus cases.  

He may have had a lucky escape. But as countless others have pointed out, his luck was markedly improved by early testing and immediate hospital admittance. A lack of both of those has certainly killed thousands.

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