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The rapid spread of COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on all our lives. Government and industry institutions have had to respond to fast evolving events, but it’s not always easy to keep up to speed with information and advice. So what are the key things installers need to know?
With the outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent disruption to jobs and economic activity in the UK, many installers are still trying to evaluate what the implications are for them and their businesses. There has been some debate about the classification of ‘key worker’ status, but the vital nature of the work this sector does to keep heating systems, drinking water and sanitation facilities safe and operational means that some services cannot be put on hold.
Inevitably, there have been widespread cancellations of non-essential services and, based on an uncertain future, there are likely to be fewer bookings for things like new bathroom installations and other discretionary work. But boiler breakdowns and plumbing emergencies will occur regardless of the pandemic, and installers will need to be prepared to operate in this new reality.
Installers who can continue working in people’s homes and businesses are advised to take a risk assessment of the circumstances first. The Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) emphasises that you are perfectly entitled to choose to not work in a particular environment if you feel that it is unsafe. Sole traders can decline work on this basis, while employees can raise concerns with the employer.
In all cases, it’s best to assume that the premises you are working in, and the system you are working on, contain the virus. It’s just as important to avoid contracting the virus as it is to avoid spreading it around, particularly to more vulnerable clients, so you need to prepare yourself appropriately.
If you have work already scheduled and are receiving enquiries, it would be best to let them know in advance that you will adhere to guidance from government and that you will keep them informed of any changes to your work scheduling.
Customers may request to cancel work, so check up on your terms and conditions of business and adhere to them. However try to be flexible in terms of rescheduling work should a customer request it.
The Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors (APHC) points out that there isn’t any official guidance for working in the homes and properties of customers, but common sense measures will help to minimise risks. The general guidance of not shaking hands, keeping a distance and regularly washing hands with hot water and soap will help protect everyone. It may also be wise to speak to the customer over the phone prior to each appointment to ascertain the health conditions of occupants and whether they have coughs or a fever.
The CIPHE advises its members to increase use of personal protective equipment (PPE) wherever reasonably possible. This includes items you may already possess, such as safety glasses, gloves and face masks. If at all possible, use disposable items so you can wear a new set of PPE on the next job. If you can’t use disposable items, keep your PPE clean according to manufacturer instructions. Let your clients know of any additional costs these precautionary measures entail and make it clear that you are taking these steps for their safety as well as your own.
Good workplace and tool cleaning practices are also advised. Avoid sharing tools with co-workers if possible, and when choosing cleaning chemicals, look for products that act against viral pathogens. If you can’t find commercial cleaners, use soap and water and dry tools thoroughly after use. The CIPHE also advises that installers change their clothes immediately when returning home and wash them right away.
The International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials issued advice on World Plumbing Day (11 March) – the same day the World Health Organisation announced that the outbreak qualifies as a pandemic – that plumbers working with sanitary systems should take extra care. Pointing to a case in Hong Kong where an outbreak occurred in a high rise building via the sanitary drainage system, the Association says that it is ‘likely’ that COVID-19 can be spread in this way.
Therefore, for as long as the pandemic is still active it should be assumed by anyone working on a sanitary drainage system that the virus is present. Considering the potential to come into contact with water and aerosols that contain the coronavirus when working these systems, it is highly recommended that plumbers wear proper PPE, including a full face shield and gloves.
During the current crisis, it is inevitable that some customers will need checks such as legionella risk assessments and Gas Safety certificates, but if they are self-isolating, this will present barriers. In the event that tenants are in self-isolation, government guidance may be raised as a means of trying to mitigate why you are unable to attend a premises for inspection/certification. However, the current obligations remain legally enforceable.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has confirmed that the duty of care that landlords have to their tenants remains in place, and this includes a legal duty to repair and maintain gas pipework, flues and appliances in a safe condition, to ensure an annual gas safety check on each appliance and flue, and to keep a record of each safety check.
Landlords have been advised that if they are unable to engage a registered gas engineer to carry out the work due to a shortage of available engineers, they will need to demonstrate that they took reasonable steps to comply with the law. This should include records of communication with the tenant and details of the engineer’s attempts to gain access.
The government has advised that if a person or someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms, they should self-isolate for 14 days. Those who follow this advice will be eligible for statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day of their absence from work.
If an employee is diagnosed with coronavirus, they should be dealt with in exactly the same way as any other sick leave. The APHC points out that businesses with fewer than 250 employees can get a refund in full on statutory sick pay in cases involving 14 days sick leave due to COVID-19.
As an employer, if you decide to send an individual home as a precautionary measure because you are worried about exposure to coronavirus, this will be on full pay. In this case, the employee is following the reasonable instruction of their employer and should get their normal pay.
With regards to public liability insurance,the CIPHE advises that nothing related to the coronavirus pandemic will adversely affect the coverage provided. For that reason, you should continue to perform your role as professionally and diligently as you would at any other time.
It would be wise to check all of your insurances (personal ill health/sickness and commercial) to claim for any losses that may be covered by this pandemic.
To help protect the income of the self-employed, the Government has introduced the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme which will provide direct cash grants of 80% of profits, up to £2500 per month, for at least three months.
The scheme is open to those with a trading profit of less than £50,000 in 2018-19 or an average trading profit of less than £50,000 from 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. To qualify, more than half of your income in those periods must have come from self-employment.
With the aim of preventing fraud, only those who are already in self-employment and meet the above conditions are assured that they will qualify. HMRC says that it will identify eligible taxpayers and contact them directly with guidance on how to apply.
The income support scheme will cover the three months to May and grants will be paid in a single lump sum at the beginning of June to cover all three months.