According to the Unite union, which represents construction and other public service workers, highways maintenance operatives are being prevented from following social distancing guidelines.
While in some depots, canteens and mess areas have been closed, workers are still operating in two and three person crews, travel together in cabs and also cannot social distance while on site.
For Highways England, responsible for motorways and trunk roads, work is continuing to maintain the highway network; it is also keeping its construction sites open, in accordance with government guidelines.
The Unite union, however, is calling for second-degree maintenance work to be suspended during the coronavirus lockdown. It said that essential emergency work needs to continue; such as repairing barrier damage, filling potholes, clearing up spillages and fixing boundary fences where there is nearby livestock. But routine cyclical maintenance and litter picking should be suspended until after the crisis has ended.
According to Unit, when concerns about this was raised on some contracts in northern England, workers were informed that Highways England had confirmed that “litter picking was a safety critical activity”.
Unite believes that if work was reduced to just emergency work, workers could single crew and would be able to successfully socially distance.
Unite national officer for construction Jerry Swain said: “Highways maintenance workers are essential workers who play a vital role keeping roads open and motorists safe. That does not mean that social distancing rules do not apply to them. Highways maintenance employers need to make far greater efforts to ensure that social distancing is applied at work.”
He added: “Highways England is clearly at fault, this is not business as normal. Emergency work of course needs to be undertaken but workers should not be placed at risk undertaking non-essential maintenance work.
“To suggest that collecting litter by the side of motorways and major roads is a safety critical activity demonstrates they have lost all perspective. The Department of Transport needs to intervene and ensure that its agency puts the safety of its workforce first.”
Highways England insists that all of its teams – including those litter picking – are complying with social distancing measures and that it has “put processes in place to ensure we don’t have more than one person travelling in a vehicle to site”.
A Highways England spokesperson said: “We’re working hard to ensure the safety of our workforce and all our sites have strict safeguarding measures in line with PHE guidance, to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“Litter poses a safety risk as it can obstruct important road markings and signage and clearing it is part of our ongoing work to maintain the road network, to ensure life-saving medicine, equipment, supplies and healthcare staff can travel to where they are needed most.”
However, according to our sources, this may not be entirely accurate. North Yorkshire highways scheduled gully operations are still being carried out by two-man crews in one-vehicle operations, we are told.