Mitie workers at a Covid-19 test centre in Inverness, which was at the centre of a coronavirus outbreak, have alleged that a “catalogue of failures” by the company contributed to multiple staff falling ill.
The test centre shut on 10 January after a cluster of cases was confirmed at the site, which is based in the car park of Highland Council‘s headquarters in the city.
The site, which opened in October, is operated by facilities management firm Mitie on behalf of the UK Government.
After the outbreak emerged, health and safety investigators were called in and declared the site fit to open three days later.
However, The Ferret understands that more people went on to test positive, with 18 out of 40 staff at the centre developing Covid-19 since 7 January. One tested positive on 4 February, The Ferret was told.
Mitie strongly rejects the workers’ allegations and says it followed all government procedures.
The company claims this is a not a single outbreak. It said that while “a small number of employees” tested positive just before the centre was shut, “a separate incident” which saw five more workers test positive was due to car sharing, which did not follow government guidelines.
Workers say six tested positive, and only three had shared a car, wearing masks. But it is understood workers who had been car sharing are now facing a probationary review.
Mitie also claims that deep cleaning was conducted after staff first tested positive and says all workers waiting for test results remained in isolation.
But workers reject this and claimed the way the situation was handled led to more people getting ill. They allege this may not have been the case if more stringent measures had been taken.
One worker told The Ferret said: “To start with it felt like a good job – it is paid at £11 an hour, the boss was quite relaxed, the interactions with the public felt safe. We think about Covid-19 coming into the site via the person who is getting tested, and they go through what we call the red zone.
“We have masks on, we use hand gel, we regularly change PPE, every time someone goes in or out everything that anyone getting tested touches is cleaned down immediately.
“But it wasn’t until the start of this year when a member of staff came in [with Covid-19] that we realised when it comes into the green zone – the communal and canteen areas – then everyone is going to get it.”
Workers who spoke to The Ferret claim that a senior member of staff was the first to get ill.
After they tested positive on 7 January, another member of staff developed symptoms. The following evening, with anxiety increasing amongst the team, several others were tested.
It was on the evening of 8 January too that the next team of workers, due to start their four day shift pattern the following morning, claimed they found out that Covid-19 had been onsite for the first time.
They received the news through a message from a cleaner on the staff and management Whatsapp group, explaining she would be isolating due to close contact with two people who had tested positive.
‘Robust cleaning regime’ questioned
Screenshots of Whatsapp messages from the staff-management group – seen by The Ferret – show one manager stated twice that a deep clean would be done “so nobody stress”. Another said there was “a robust cleaning regime” while their follow-up email on 9 January states an “increase in the cleaning regime” was done to their “satisfaction”.
However, three workers told The Ferret it was clear that their expectation of what that would involve was not what had happened. “There is fruit in a box for staff to help themselves,” said one. “When I came in the apples were still in the box. The plastic cutlery in the kitchen area that everyone can use was untouched.”
Another said that a bin inside a room used to make up testing kits had not been emptied.
Staff had already raised concerns on the group chat the previous evening, asking for details of who had been tested and when those found to be positive had last been on site.
Though they publically appear to accept what they were told, screenshots of private messages from staff only group chats show they were worried. “I thought they needed to shut down the site immediately,” one told The Ferret.
But when workers tried to raise these concerns at a morning staff briefing on Saturday, 9 January, they say they were told firmly that all the protocol was in place, including a lengthy risk assessment, and that they were “welcome” to do more cleaning if they still felt unsafe.
“But as the day went on a few of us started to feel less confident,” said one worker. “A member of security – who had been in our briefing – had gone for a test the previous night with lots of the other team. So they were at work when they found out halfway through the day that they had tested positive.”
Management said that as they had been wearing PPE there was no risk to others. The security guard’s colleague, with whom they shared a small booth, was not sent home for several hours, workers claim.
The second security guard did leave later that day and took a test. But staff say they were then allowed back to work the following week, after testing negative within hours of exposure.
Workers claim the security guard should have been required to isolate. They also told The Ferret they were angry at the lack of communication around the crisis, which they say added to stress levels.
“At no point did we receive any formal information,” says one worker. “We eventually closed on Sunday, 10 January. But this was now at least three days after there had been staff with Covid-19 on site.”
The site remained closed for three days before staff were told it was safe to return. It is understood 11 out of 13 staff from the team who had worked shifts between 5–8 January went on to test positive and so by this point were isolating.
Some others, though well, felt uncomfortable about returning as a result.
One said: “We had been told the site was safe and clean before. But the last time I was told that I was stood next to someone with Covid-19 in an unventilated room that hadn’t been deep cleaned since it was occupied by numerous people, also with Covid-19. A few of us asked for information and I feel like our concerns were ridiculed.”
They returned to work, but within a week, six more members of the team had Covid-19.
One worker said: “I worry that I could have been potentially infecting the public and vulnerable people. I raised repeated concerns and yet I was exposed.”
Another added: “I do think they now have it under control. But I am sure that the action – or inaction – of the management was responsible for people getting ill.”
Mitie firmly refutes this. It said that briefings were held on site to cover infection control and behaviours everyday. The firm said it reminded employees they must not car-share. “There is a zero-tolerance approach to anyone not following these rules on site as this puts both colleagues and the public at risk,” Mitie added.
But Dave Moxham, deputy secretary of the STUC said workers had been let down. “This testimony clearly indicates the company is not only failing to communicate but [failing] to take the necessary risk-adverse approach to Covid in the workplace,” he added.
“It reveals a catalogue of failures when it comes to Covid-19 risk assessment. This is of particular concern because of the central role the test centre is playing.”
Moxham said the STUC had already met with the Scottish Government to raise concerns that Mitie was only paying statutory sick pay of £95.85 a week, which, he argued, “is a clear disincentive for staff to do the right thing”.
Rhoda Grant, the Scottish Labour MSP for Highlands and Islands, said the outbreak shone a light on the problems with outsourcing Covid-19 testing. She added: “This testing centre should be run by the NHS and this outbreak shows that this is the case.
“You would expect a testing centre to have the highest possible standards. Those running it should have an in-depth knowledge of how to treat everyone – whether from the public or staff – as if they could be infectious.
“The contract should be taken back in-house.”
A spokesperson for Mitie told The Ferret that the safety of both employees and members of the public was its “utmost priority”.
“We follow all DHSC and Test & Trace guidance regarding employees who test positive for Coronavirus,” they added.
“This includes conducting a full risk assessment, deep cleaning of the site, and requiring any impacted colleagues to self-isolate until they receive a negative test result.
“All of our colleagues receive regular training on the correct PPE, social distancing and Test & Trace procedures, in order to prevent transmission on site.”
This story was published in co-production with the Sunday National.
Image thanks to iStock/Richard Johnson