COVID-19

THE NATIONAL Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) announced that fire and rescue service (FRS) staff nationwide are now part of a COVID-19 rapid testing programme.

The NFCC reported that FRS staff would be included in rapid testing as ‘part of a drive to keep staff, their colleagues, families and the communities they serve, safe’, with the testing having been extended to FRSs as part of the government’s ‘ongoing UK-wide drive to increase the availability of testing and reduce the spread of COVID-19’.

As of 1 February, FRSs received stocks of lateral flow tests provided by the NHS’s test and trace programme, as part of the government’s ‘employer-led testing’ scheme, with the NFCC stating that since 25 January, over 15,000 tests had been undertaken on FRS staff, ‘around’ 30% of the UK workforce. Some were provided via local arrangements, with added provision from the Department of Health and Social Care distributed via the NFCC’s national resilience function.

The NFCC said this all means ‘more staff will be tested’, allowing them to ‘continue their important COVID-related work’, and test availability ‘not only enhances the safety’ of FRS staff but ‘also enables them to undertake additional COVID-related activities’, such as supporting the nationwide vaccination programme. FRS staff were also being encouraged at a local level to take tests, ‘to keep them and everyone around them safer’.

All of the testing initiatives help to ‘reinforce that the health, safety and well-being’ of staff ‘is a priority’ for FRSs, the NFCC said, pointing out additionally that around one in three people infected with the virus have no symptoms ‘so could be spreading the disease without knowing it’. By broadening testing to identify asymptomatic sufferers, positives cases can be found ‘more quickly’ and aid in ‘preventing the spread’.

It noted that each positive result from a rapid test ‘is one that would not have been found otherwise’, which helps in turn to ‘break chains of transmission in our communities and workplaces and protecting those at highest risk’. With multiple technologies available, more positive cases can be found and ‘people can isolate and prevent the spread of the disease’, with the rapid lateral flow tests providing results ‘within 30 minutes’.

NFCC chair Roy Wilsher commented: ‘It is great news that [FRSs] are receiving the lateral flow tests. This will not only help keep our staff safe, but allows important COVID-related work to continue. FRS staff are on the frontline - assisting those who need their help the most – showing it is in their DNA to be ready, willing and able to help.

‘The health and safety of staff is of paramount importance and regular testing sends a very clear message to staff, your wellbeing is incredibly important, while helping you to do what you do best; be at the heart of the response.’

In the early stages of lockdown, the NFCC, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU and the national employer confirmed additional activities to assist other key services had been agreed for FRS staff, including mask face fitting, delivering personal protective equipment (PPE), administering tests, and driving as well as training on driving ambulances.

Last April, a further agreement saw 300 London Fire Brigade (LFB) firefighters drive ambulances and assist paramedics in London’s pandemic response, after news that firefighters would aim to protect the vulnerable in society by avoiding hospitals and care homes, as part of an agreed ‘critical risk-based service’.

Prior to this, FRS staff had been confirmed to be undertaking antigen testing, driving non blue light ambulance transport and non COVID patients, and training others to drive ambulances. Also in April, it was revealed that over 4,000 FRS staff had volunteered to assist, while a further 10,000 were ‘on standby to assist as and when required’.

In May, the three bodies agreed firefighters could build protective face shields for frontline NHS staff and care staff, and transfer patients from and to Nightingale hospitals, alongside packaging and repackaging food supplies. Later that month, the NFCC confirmed FRSs would ‘work with local partners to support care homes’, and then confirmed that the agreements were ‘extended’.

The agreement was extended again in late July, and towards the end of last year extended again, with FRSs preparing for the ‘second wave’. FRSs had been asked to risk assess all activities, ‘including those that haven’t been requested by Local Resilience Forums’, with risk assessments for nationally agreed activities implanted locally, and the agreement able to be extended further.

Last December, the NFCC and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh discussed their ‘pride’ in the FRS response, before it was revealed FRSs were ‘ready to help’ with delivering vaccines and assisting the test and trace programme, as part of a new agreement. At the time, the FBU said this would see firefighters check that ‘potential higher risk premises are COVID-secure’, inspecting workplaces ‘where relevant authorities have raised concerns’ about COVID security.

Firefighters were required to wait three days and receive a negative COVID-19 test before returning to FRS premises ‘when returning from pandemic duties’, and the previous agreements had become ‘much longer term than originally envisaged’, so the new tasks and 14 continuing responsibilities were to ‘come under’ the jurisdiction of the National Joint Council, the ‘normal body for national industrial agreements’ for FRSs where pay and conditions are negotiated.

That new agreement was in place until January, but ‘with a view to extension beyond that’. However, in January the FBU announced that the national employer and the NFCC had ‘unilaterally scrapped’ the agreement, stating that negotiations over health and safety measures for firefighters ‘delivering high risk’ COVID-19 duties ‘were ongoing’ when the national employer ‘issued a communication ending the agreement’.

The FBU added that the decision ‘appears to be supported’ by the NFCC, and added that ‘this was done without any prior notice to firefighters or the FBU’, claiming that the termination ‘is driven by the employers’ desire to alter previously agreed safety arrangements which protected firefighters undertaking additional work’, including submitting a negative test before returning to stations, ‘protecting the service from mass outbreaks by removing the risk of cross contamination’.

It said that in talks the employers ‘attempted to remove this protection at a national level’, and despite the FBU offering a range of ‘alternative safety measures to enable the activities to proceed safely’, these were rejected before the employers ‘unilaterally withdrew from the agreement’. As a consequence, ‘there are now no national protections for firefighters delivering COVID-19 duties’, with the FBU calling this an ‘abdication of responsibility’ by the employers.

The ‘uneven’ health and safety practices in other sectors ‘should not be repeated’ for the FRSs, and it urged the employers to ‘get back around the table so that the national agreement can be reintroduced in full’, with the FBU to speak with members before issuing further guidance. Most recently, a report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Service (HMICFRS) claimed the FBU ‘stopped firefighters helping’ with COVID-19 support actions - this was contested by the FBU, which called the report ‘a political and biased attack on firefighters’.

Most recently earlier this month, the NFCC commented on the assistance being given by a number of fire and rescue services (FRSs) across the country to help with vaccinations, testing and other support activities.