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“Fire service bosses unilaterally scrap COVID-19 agreement” reports FBU

18 January 2021

FIRE AND Rescue Service employers have unilaterally scrapped a groundbreaking agreement with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) which had enabled firefighters to assist the National Health Service (NHS) and the care sector’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Negotiations over Health and Safety measures for firefighters delivering high-risk COVID-19 duties were ongoing when the National Employers issued a communication ending the agreement on the evening of Wednesday 13 January. Apparently, this was done without any prior notice to firefighters or the FBU.

The FBU has stated its belief that the agreement’s termination is driven by the National Employers’ desire to alter previously agreed safety arrangements which protected firefighters undertaking additional work.

Under the agreement, firefighters were required to submit a negative COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction test before returning to their fire station on normal duties, thereby protecting the Fire and Rescue Service from mass outbreaks by removing the risk of cross-contamination. However, in talks the National Employers allegedly attempted to remove this protection at a national level.

Working over the Christmas and New Year period, the Trade Union had offered a range of alternative safety measures to enable the activities to proceed safely, but these were rejected by National Employers. The latter then unilaterally withdrew from the agreement. As a result, there are now no national protections in place for firefighters delivering COVID-19 duties.

“Abdication of responsibility”

The FBU has referenced the move as an “abdication of responsibility” by National Employers regarding the safety of firefighters and outlines that the “uneven Health and Safety practices” across other sectors should not be repeated within the Fire and Rescue Service.

Overwhelmingly represented by the FBU, firefighters have taken on numerous additional COVID-related activities during the course of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 in order to assist in keeping communities safe.

Indeed, National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) data shows that, since last March, UK firefighters have delivered 125,000 essential items to vulnerable people, fitted 7,370 NHS and clinical face masks, assembled more than 68,000 single-use face masks, trained 273 people to drive ambulances, transferred 1,456 COVID patients to and from hospital and moved 3,196 bodies.

The agreement was originally established through a tripartite mechanism involving the FBU, the fire service National Employers and the NFCC. More recently it was renewed via the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services (NJC).

The FBU is urging Fire and Rescue Service National Employers to reconvene at the negotiating table such that the national agreement can be reintroduced in full. The Trade Union has stated that it will now be speaking with its members before issuing further guidance.

“Irresponsible move”

Matt Wrack, general secretary at the FBU, commented: “This irresponsible move from Fire and Rescue Service employers threatens to endanger the lives of firefighters, their families and the public. The FBU has consistently worked with employers and fire chiefs in good faith to enable firefighters to safely take on new work conducted to help their communities through this pandemic. However, employers have decided to begin a race to the bottom on safety, abdicating their responsibility to keep their staff safe and services protected from mass outbreaks of the virus.”

Wrack continued: “Rather than support firefighters’ life-saving work, employers have walked away from the very agreement which enabled it. By removing national safety standards, they’re exposing staff and Fire and Rescue Services in general to a deadly disease, all apparently to make a political attack on a Trade Union simply because we’re trying to ensure that the working environment is safe for our members.”

In conclusion, Wrack observed: “Firefighters carrying out COVID-19 duties have undoubtedly saved lives and we’re proud to have helped them do so safely. We deeply regret that employers have scrapped this crucial agreement and urge them to reintroduce vital national safety protections and resume talks. They should stop playing politics and talk at the negotiating table with a view to resolving this issue.”

Frances O’Grady, general security of the Trades Union Congress, said: “Firefighters are making a huge contribution towards fighting the pandemic by helping the vulnerable, driving ambulances and supporting NHS and care services, but safety must always come first. The consequences of COVID-19 running rampant through a local fire station and communities are too grim to contemplate. None of us know when we might need to make a 999 call.”

O’Grady added: “By turning their back on the national safety agreement, employers and fire chiefs are turning their back on us all. They must return to the negotiating table.”