Over the last few months we have heard reports of Covid-19 violence across the industry including retail workers and delivery drivers who deliver into the community. The Coronavirus pandemic has introduced a new type of workplace violence where someone claiming to be infected with the virus deliberately coughs or spits directly into the face of an individual. It is important that employers determine if there is a foreseeable risk from this type of Covid-19 violence and, if so, what risk control measures will be required. Some concerning behaviours which need to be recognised and addressed are:
Social distance tensions – Some employees will not maintain proper distance from co-workers and may fail to respect capacity rules in a meeting room or kitchen area. Other employees are likely to speak up and become upset if nothing happens to those who aren’t observing the rules.
Using the virus as a weapon – Employees who don’t take the virus seriously may return to work even when they don’t feel well, risking the health of others. In some cases, saliva is being used as a weapon.
We have found the following cases which really do speak for themselves:
Case: Two people – a 61-year-old taxi driver and a 47-year-old railway worker at Victoria station – lost their lives to Coronavirus after being spat at whilst working during the pandemic. The perpetrators in both cases committed common assault by battery. Battery is the application of unlawful force upon another and falls under section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and carries a maximum sentence of 12 months. Case law has established that the offence covers incidents such as spitting, pushing and slapping. The offenders in this case have not been prosecuted.
Case: A man was jailed for 13 months for spitting at a council security guard and at police officers in March 2020 in Fallowfield, Manchester, whilst shouting he had Coronavirus and hoped they’d die.
Case: In April 2020 a man was arrested at the Asda store in Dane St, Rochdale. The defendant was asked to leave the store by a member of security staff and then coughed repeatedly in the security guard’s face while claiming to have Coronavirus. Outside the store he threatened to spit at the guard while repeating the claim that he had Coronavirus. He was arrested by the police shortly afterwards. CPS North West prosecuted him for assault. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison.
Case: A man was arrested in April 2020 in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester City Centre after he had been warned numerous times to leave the city centre by police officers and had coughed in their direction while claiming to have Coronavirus. He then later spat at one of the arresting officers and racially abused another officer. CPS North West prosecuted him for assaulting an emergency worker, racially aggravated public order and being drunk and disorderly. He pleaded guilty was sentenced to 24 weeks in prison.
Case: A man was jailed for four months for pulling down his facemask and spitting in the face of a security guard at Asda, Blackpool in April 2020 after he was challenged for jumping the social distancing queue. He pleaded guilty at Preston Crown Court in May 2020.
There is little statistical evidence to suggest that Covid-related violence is widespread, although this may change as the return work speeds up. There have been a number of assaults on health care and transport workers as well as police. Control measures should be put in place to prevent or reduce the potential for violence and aggression and mitigating the impact of these should it materialise.
Consideration should be given to whether Covid-19 violence can occur that involves coughing and spitting and if this will occur due to the changes made to the workplace as a result of Covid-19 secure measures.
- staff/customers unable to access services (unsure of location and opening times)
- perception of service that will be provided (service will be busy)
- lack of information on the services needed
- unacceptable waiting times before and during service
- staff members being unhelpful, inefficient, lacking knowledge, poor attitude, etc
- inhospitable environment and clashes with other staff/customers
- unwanted outcomes after accessing services.
The introduction of Covid-19 secure guidelines has the potential to provide triggers for aggression and violence, for example by:
- changes to the ways of working in terms of opening times, locations, etc
- changes to the services that may be available
- limited knowledge of changes to service provision
- increased rules and stricter procedures during the pandemic (eg social distancing)
- increased waiting times due to limited service providers being allowed in premises at any one time
- perceived breaking of rules by staff and customers
- employees/customers not being aware of changes to the service provision.
Covid-19 secure guidelines require additional measures to reduce the risks where practicable. These could include:
- encouraging staff/customers to use alternative methods to gain access to services
- providing information to customers/staff on new working practices (e.g. new opening times, Covid-19 distancing rules, etc)
- strict enforcement of social distancing rules through markings, signs and notices
- use of physical barriers (e.g. Perspex screens) to protect employees from coughing and spitting
- the wearing of face coverings if practical
- ensuring employees are efficient in new working practices.
Many of these measures may already be in hand as general protection methods from direct transmission of the virus and as such should not entail extensive additional costs.