Firefighters were prevented from carrying out roles supporting the response to coronavirus because their “hands were tied” by union lobbying over safety protections, a report has found.
HM Inspectorate of Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said “restrictive” working arrangements agreed between employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) had “prevented or delayed” some humanitarian deployments.
An inspection of how England’s 45 fire services responded to the pandemic accused the FBU of urging firefighters not to volunteer to support the NHS Test and Trace system or the Covid-19 vaccination programme. The FBU denied the allegations.
Zoë Billingham, HM inspector of fire and rescue services, said: “I am calling on those responsible to act in the national interest, remove the barriers and ensure that dedicated firefighters can now use of all their considerable skills where they are most needed in our shared fight against Covid-19 and beyond. The public would rightly expect every emergency service to be doing everything within its power to tackle this pandemic.”
Ms Billingham said firefighters were being offered “exactly” the same protections as other emergency workers, telling reporters on Thursday: “As a direct result of the position that the trade union adopted, the ability for fire services to deploy firefighters into potentially life-saving activities was limited and delayed.”
Citing examples of efforts to crack down on coronavirus being ”thwarted“ as a result of such delays, she highlighted a 12-week delay in fire crews being able to knock on doors of people who the Test and Trace programme was struggling to contact in Manchester.
Ms Billingham said: “You can only imagine if more people had been contacted by test and trace, what potentially the public health benefits of that might be.”
There had also been problems in some cases arranging for firefighters to help other emergency services gain entry to buildings where people were thought to be incapacitated after contracting coronavirus and moving cars so ambulances could get by, inspectors said.
The FBU, which represents more than 30,000 firefighters and control staff, called the report a “political and biased attack on firefighters” and said it had not been spoken to by the inspectorate as it was drawing up the report.
“The FBU has from the start wholeheartedly supported the response to the pandemic, and as a result of agreements delivered by the union, firefighters have been able to take on significant areas of additional work,” general secretary Matt Wrack added.
He said the agreement drawn up between the FBU and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), which the report called “more of a hindrance than a help”, contained vital safety message.
He said the low levels of staff absence during the pandemic, and fact that a serving firefighter did not die from coronavirus until this month, were proof of its success.
“Our priorities throughout this pandemic have been to ensure firefighters can safely support their communities, the NHS, and the care sector,” Mr Wrack added.
“That means protecting their health but also the services they work in which continue to respond to emergencies.”
The FBU and employers agreed on 9 December that firefighters should take part in the vaccine rollout, but risk assessments and safety measures were contested and the agreement collapsed last week.
The agreement meant firefighters doing work judged to create a high risk of Covid infection needed a negative test before returning to their stations, but employers wanted to drop the requirement. The FBU insisted it was working on a compromise when employers withdrew from the deal.
HMICFRS said fire and rescue staff would be “provided with the same health and safety safeguards as the other agencies they are supporting, such as the NHS” and that it would be monitoring the consequences of the change.
Ms Billingham said: “We question the need for a mechanism such as the tripartite agreement in the first place, not least where staff are ready, willing and able to assist.
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“We think the public would expect greater flexibility of the fire and rescue service during this global health emergency. Specifically, chief fire officers should be unhindered in their ability to deploy their workforce rapidly, safely and effectively so as to protect the public.
“However valuable the role of trade unions in protecting their members’ interests, we don’t consider it appropriate for the FBU to have been given the ability to delay or veto the reasonable and safe deployment of firefighters to assist the public during a national emergency.”
Overall, inspectors found most fire services had been able to continue responding to blazes during the pandemic and ”many services provided pandemic-specific support outside their statutory duties”.
The government said it had secured access to appropriate PPE and testing for fire staff, and was making 10,000 tests per week available to those supporting health partners.
Lord Greenhalgh, the fire minister, said: “This report rightly recognises the incredible contribution the fire service has made to the fight against Covid in communities across our country.
“However, it is extremely disappointing and frustrating to note the report’s findings that so many of our brave firefighters have been prevented from stepping up to support the pandemic response because of the actions of the Fire Brigades Union.
“In the weeks and months ahead there is an even bigger role to play in the roll out of vaccination and testing, and I call on all firefighters and fire and rescue staff to join this effort.”
Additional reporting by PA