A group of doctors is arguing that workplaces are now the frontline in the battle against Covid-19—and hazardous working conditions are responsible for mass outbreaks.
Doctors in Unite has published a new report on the role of airborne spread in factory outbreaks of Covid-19. It shows the failures by the government and bosses.
Jonathan Fluxman, co-author of the report, told Socialist Worker, “You can reduce the virus a lot by taking certain measures. But the economy has not been engineered with Covid-19 in mind.”
The report states, “The timing, circumstances and pattern of the outbreaks, points to them being typical ‘super-spreader events’, caused by airborne spread of the virus within the same enclosed indoor space of the factory, from one or two infected individuals to large numbers of other workers."
It argues that urgent measures need to be taken to address the airborne spread “to prevent infection rates going up, not reacting when they have already become high”.
In August, The British Medical Journal published an article about the airborne spread of Covid-19, in which transmission occurs through very small aerosol particles.
It said that current official guidance stating that transmission occurs through droplet spread is stopping the implementation of effective measures.
At the Greencore factory in Northampton, 300 people were infected.
Despite factory bosses arguing they had implemented safety measures, pictures from the factory show workers sharing the same space without masks and not socially-distancing.
“It was a failure of Greencore management to make mask-wearing optional. Masks are really important, but the government has destroyed any trust in masks. They said they weren’t an effective measure, but they are effective,” said Jonathan.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock irresponsibly said masks don’t work in offices. Jonathan called this “A gross ignorance from the minister of health. They are bending the truth and we know they lie.
“There’s been the same disorganised, incoherent, completely incompetent management by the government. Official SAGE documents talked about aerosols in April, but airborne spread and official government guidance has not changed.”
A study of a similar super-spreading event at the Tonnies meat packing factory in Germany reported that the spread was from a single case—one worker spread the virus to others, rather than multiple workers bringing it in from the community as management claimed.
Over a three day period, 29 workers out of 147 who worked the same shift as the first case became infected before the first case was quarantined. Some 60 percent of workers within an eight metre radius became infected, leading to a secondary outbreak of over 1,500 workers becoming infected.
A demonstration against the "Tonnies system" was planned for Friday this week in Dusseldorf.
The study found that although droplets tend to travel no further than two metres, aerosols can stay in the air for long periods of time and can deliver infectious viral particles up to eight metres away.
Shared apartments, bedrooms, or carpools were responsible for a second outbreak, but occurred because of transmission from the original outbreak.
It also said that close distance between workers and low fresh air exchange rates together with continuous re-circulation of cooled air promotes efficient aerosol transmission of particles.
Improved ventilation and airflow, filtering devices or high-quality face masks and immediate quarantine of all workers in proximity to infection would reduce the risk of spread.
The Doctors in Unite report states that the lack of awareness about the role of indoor aerosol spread driving factory outbreaks is affecting the way they are handled.
Jonathan said the government is “not looking at evidence that they don’t like. If they accept the reality of airborne spread and the need for ventilation and reengineering of the economy, then it means the current guidance is not fit for purpose."
Misinformation of how Covid-19 spreads is leading to victim-blaming, but blame should be directed to employers and the government.
Jonathan said, “Migrant workers are a usual convenient scapegoat. The racist and anti-migrant element is really nasty and gives ammunition to the right wing to blame immigrants.”
The report also calls for trade union supervision and control of workplace safety.
It says all workers forced to take time off due to having Covid-19 or having been in contact with it should receive full pay while isolating.
“Unions are crucial. They should be raising this in every workplace, and demanding mandatory mask wearing”, said Jonathan.
And the need to act is urgent. “If we are telling workers to go back to spaces without paying attention to the airborne spread, we are sending them to get sick and some will die. That is completely immoral and unacceptable.”
Whilst bosses and the government prioritise profits and the reopening of the economy, workers and unions need to pile on pressure to make all workplaces safe.