Fire service stopped from helping vaccine rollout by the unions, says watchdog

Izzy Lyons
·3 min read
Fire bosses and union officials are locked in lengthy, complicated negotiations about whether firefighters can contribute to efforts tackling coronavirus - Andy Stenning/Daily Mirror
Fire bosses and union officials are locked in lengthy, complicated negotiations about whether firefighters can contribute to efforts tackling coronavirus - Andy Stenning/Daily Mirror
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The fire service has been stopped from assisting with the vaccine rollout by “hindrance” trade unions that have ordered members not to help, a watchdog has warned.

Fire bosses and union officials are locked in lengthy, complicated negotiations about whether firefighters can contribute to efforts tackling coronavirus, according to Zoë Billingham, Her Majesty's Inspector of the Fire and Rescue Services.

In a report, Ms Billingham warned the national crackdown on coronavirus is being "thwarted" by trade union roadblocks.

In Manchester, firefighters recently faced a 12-week delay to start knocking on doors of those who Test and Trace were struggling to contact.

There has also been problems arranging for firefighters to help other emergency services gain entry to buildings where people were thought to be incapacitated after contracting coronavirus, inspectors said.

Ms Billingham said the working arrangements between the fire and rescue service, national employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has prevented some firefighters from "maximising the support they could provide to the public" and the agreement had become "more of a hindrance".

The report comes after union officials claimed the agreement allowing firefighters to help NHS and care workers during the pandemic has been scrapped over fears of inadequate health and safety protection.

Ms Billingham said firefighters were being offered "exactly" the same protections as other emergency workers, telling reporters: "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.

"It's not what the public would expect of a fire service that they generally hold in such high admiration and we doubt it is what firefighters would want either. They are dedicated, public spirited professionals who told us they want to help."

Describing the situation as "deeply regrettable", she warned that ongoing tensions could affect the number of firefighters volunteering to help deliver the mass vaccination programme after the FBU asked members not to come forward.

That request was made six weeks ago and "remains the case today", she added.

The findings of her inspection, which looked at the response of all 45 fire and rescue services in England to the challenges posed by the pandemic, called for leaders to "act in the national interest" and remove "unnecessary barriers which are preventing firefighters from providing further support when it is so desperately needed."

She added: "Chief fire officers should be unhindered in their ability to deploy their workforce rapidly, safely and effectively to protect the public."

Nonetheless, Ms Billingham praised the "inspiring willingness from fire and rescue staff to step up and provide any support they could to help communities during these unprecedented times" and thanked everyone who offered to help.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “This report is a political and biased attack on firefighters. It is neither evidence based nor an independent report and is instead full of untruths and omissions and we totally reject it. While firefighters are out tackling fires, floods and the pandemic, the HMICFRS didn’t even have the courtesy to speak to or provide us in advance with a copy of their report, which was passed to us by a journalist.

“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 including driving ambulances, moving the bodies of the deceased and delivering vital supplies to the NHS and care sector and vulnerable people in our communities."