UK blood couriers ‘not given gloves and hand sanitiser’ for Covid-19 samples

A group of blood couriers is launching legal action against a testing lab, arguing that they are not being given sufficient protection while transporting high-risk Covid-19 samples.

The self-employed couriers said that some had not been given access to hand sanitiser and gloves and that none were entitled to full sick pay to cover any absence caused by illness or the need to self-isolate. They made the claims in a letter to their employer, the Doctors Laboratory (TDL), a company that provides pathology services to the NHS. They also want the option to wear masks, a full body protective outfit and to take regular tests for the virus.

How can I protect myself and others from the coronavirus outbreak?

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers

Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. Check with your local authorities for up-to-date information about the situation in your area. 

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

The couriers, who transport samples between testing labs in London and NHS hospitals on the frontline of the crisis, including University College Hospital London (UCLH), also said some samples were not properly packaged.

In some cases, they had to go into hospitals to deliver or pick up the samples because there is not a facility to be able to drop them at the entrance, according to the gig economy union Independent Workers of Great Britain, which represents 70 couriers in London.

“TDL couriers are going to be paramount to the tackling of this virus and to monitoring the spread. When everyone is being told to stay home and keep safe, TDL couriers will have to be out and expose themselves to the risks others are able to avoid,” the IWGB representative Alex Marshall writes in the letter to TDL.

It is calling on TDL to offer couriers “what they want to make them feel at ease while working. It is a small cost to pay for couriers continuing to work and keep the business going in the most adverse conditions.”

Duncan Parker, a TDL motorbike courier, said: “I’m proud to be doing such an important job right now but don’t think my health should be unnecessarily put at risk.”

A legal letter from IWGB to TDL, seen by the Guardian, says there has been a “clear breach of the couriers’ contracts” and that both employed couriers and those classed as self-employed by TDL should be treated in the same manner because “on a day to day level there is little coherent basis to demarcate the two”.

TDL said all the couriers had been offered a full employment contract, which includes sick pay rights. Those whochoose to remain self-employed receive statutory sick pay if they are ill or have to self-isolate. Under employment law, a company is not obliged to pay sick pay to the self-employed.

In a letter to the couriers, TDL said: “Full pay in the event of self-isolation is a benefit afforded only to our PAYE contracted couriers and is for a set number of days.” However the company made clear it expected the couriers to follow government guidelines and self-isolate if necessary on statutory sick pay, which is £94.25 a week. It said that current advice was that “regular testing is of no value”.

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TDL said it had provided hand sanitisers “subject to availability” and protective gloves, in line with new guidance. It said masks were not required for the activities carried out by the couriers under public health guidelines and its sample packaging was approved by Public Health England and “a leading UK dangerous goods safety advisor”. The company added that couriers were not obliged to collect a sample they believed to have been incorrectly packaged.

Emer Nestor, director of governance at TDL, said: “It is inconceivable that we would deliberately expose any of our workforce, of whom our couriers are an important part, to undue risk at any time but especially in these exceptional circumstances. All our protocols are compliant with current regulations, are kept under constant review and should they change, our protocols will change with them.”

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