SFHA Covid-19 briefing series: health and safety
By Stacey Dingwall, SFHA Policy Lead.
SFHA has produced a series of 10 briefings to help social landlords through the coronavirus emergency. This blog focuses on our health and safety briefing.
Ensuring the health and safety of tenants and staff has been at the forefront of housing associations’ concerns from the start of the pandemic. SFHA members moved quickly to ensure staff were able to work comfortably and securely from home. As well as ensuring the health and safety of staff, crucially, this meant that housing associations were able to get on with their most important role: keeping tenants safe.
The work housing associations are carrying out right now to support their tenants with issues, such as social isolation, income maximisation and access to fuel and food, is covered in our briefing on humanitarian support.
Lockdown and physical distancing requirements immediately resulted in a number of challenges for housing associations in terms of being able to access properties. What were once routine visits now have to be planned for while following guidance from the Scottish Government and Health Protection Scotland on how to minimise the spread of the virus when carrying out essential visits.
These visits now also require the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), items which housing associations are now having to procure in significantly increased amounts than before – or for the first time, altogether. As has been seen generally throughout the pandemic, housing associations have struggled to access these essential items as quickly and at the scale they need to ensure staff and tenant safety. SFHA has been working to improve this situation through the Social Housing Resilience Group we are chairing, with the intention of facilitating access for members to a national supply chain administered by the Scottish Government (further details of which have been emailed today to SFHA member CEOs). We’ve also been able to make alternative supply routes available via our bank of commercial associates.
What exactly constitutes an essential visit was an issue that came up quickly, and particularly with regards to the completion of annual gas safety checks. Although it is clearly vital to ensure the safety of tenants, the historic, exceptionally high, compliance rate with these checks among RSLs in Scotland gave rise to the reasonable questioning of whether the necessity of continuing to carry these out right now tallied with the risk of spreading the virus in doing so.
The Scottish Government shared this concern, however, as a reserved issue, the balance of power lies with the UK Government and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) here. SFHA, along with the other UK housing federations, has lobbied both on this issue, and the Scottish Housing Regulator has indicated that the ‘relaxed’ approach it is taking to regulation at this time would apply here. HSE has published guidance, complete with scenarios, to support housing associations in carrying out visits throughout the pandemic, which has been useful. This is an issue we are actively continuing to monitor as a priority, however.
Delays to maintenance work caused by Covid-19 has also raised the question of whether RSLs will be able to meet deadlines such as those set for EESSH (December 2020) and fire safety (LD2 smoke detectors) (February 2021). Again, while ensuring the safety of tenants is clearly vital, we know what members’ scheduled programmes of works are being set back on this through no fault of their own. I am currently in the process of collecting evidence with regards to this, as we work with the Scottish Government to find the best solution to this. Members of the Property Repairs and Maintenance (PRAM) Forum will have received an email from me with regards to this exercise, with a deadline of 26 May for return. Please do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve not received this and would like to feed into it.
Lastly, physical distancing requirements have posed particular issues for housing associations with multi-storey flats, where it is more challenging for tenants to observe the 2m apart rule – in lifts and stairwells, for example. Especially at the start of the pandemic, when it was less clear which staff could be designated as a key worker or what services could be described as essential, it was challenging to strike the correct balance in terms of health and safety.
It was really encouraging to see members come together on SFHA’s Teams Forum, for example, and share best practice on how they are supporting tenants to stay safe and observe requirements in terms of distancing and hygiene. I’m pleased to say that some of these examples – such as the posters placed in lifts by GHA – will be included as case studies in guidance that will shortly be published by the Scottish Government. Developed through the Social Housing Resilience Group, this document offers clear information and advice on safe access to buildings, using lifts and stairs, and cleaning and hygiene. It is hoped that this will be a key source of support for RSLs – as well as an informative resource for tenants – on service delivery in this area at this time.
SFHA’s health and safety briefing will be updated following the publication of the new multi-storey guidance and as other relevant resources become available. I hope that you have found it useful so far; however, if there are any areas that you would like to see addressed in the briefing, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.