WORRIED workers at the Honda plant called for the site to close during lockdown amid fears of the new and more infectious strain of coronavirus.
Employees accused the company of putting “cars before lives” by staying open after the town’s hospital declared a critical incident as it struggles to cope with the number of Covid patients needing treatment.
They alleged social distancing measures are not being followed and workers from different bubbles are mixing and moving between areas of the South Marston plant.
The workers’ union Unite wrote to Honda of the UK Manufacturing on Friday, urging management to furlough the entire 3,500-strong workforce with immediate effect until the virus is under control.
But the global car giant’s UK bosses reassured staff that measures put in place to protect them from the virus are working, that the borough council’s public health team will double-check this, and that the government insists that manufacturers can stay open.
One Honda employee, who did not wish to be named, told the Adver: “A lot more needs to be done to protect associates, this is not essential work. Honda thrive on reaching targets.”
Other comments seen by the Adver suggest that “bubbles are non-existent”, with one mentioning that he worked “within a metre of” five different associates from five different zones.
Another added: “I just hope no-one dies of this virus in Honda because then it will be too late. Something must be done.” And a third said: “I’m actually frightened to go in… close everything down”.
One worker said: “Honda have put in the measures, but if people do not follow them, then there is the problem.”.
A colleague said: “I don’t think it’s Covid-secure from what I see on a day-to-day basis.. but if Honda say I have to come in, I’ll come in.”
In the letter to Honda bosses, a United spokesman wrote: “It is with deep concern to hear that our hospital in Swindon has now declared that they are at a critical stage in relation to capacity being exceeded as a result of the exponential rise in Covid infections
“HUM senior management team know I have on numerous occasions raised concerns on behalf of HUM associates and indeed some of the managers who still have to attend site, especially in manufacturing with regards to the Covid situation – more so since the new strain of this deadly virus has superseded the first wave of Covid-19, with record deaths and hospital admissions.
“The time has come to state on behalf of HUM’s workforce that we do not share the optimism that senior HUM hold with regards to [the plant] being somehow insulated from the effects of a Covid outbreak – but equally as important is the fact that our local community hospital is above capacity.
“We do not support the continuation of manufacturing due to the current impact to Swindon, the NHS and our local communities and associates.”
After an “open and constructive discussion” about the pandemic in a virtual meeting, Honda acknowledged the workers’ concerns and replied in a joint statement with Unite, CCF and C3 and C4: “HUM remains confident that the safety measures at our plant achieve or exceed the government guidance”.
In a bid to ease workers’ worries, the car manufacturer will invite the council’s public health team to the site along with a representative from Unite and building materials supplier CCF to ensure that the facility is Covid-secure.
Production is currently paused due to supply issues, but the council will carry out the safety checks once production resumes and workers return to the plant.
A Honda spokesman said: “The government has confirmed ‘firms and tradespeople in manufacturing, including supply chains, should continue to operate during this national lockdown’.
“Further, as stated in the latest public letter from the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, it is vital that manufacturing continues’ and British manufacturers ‘are critical elements of the economic recovery we are building and the fight against Covid-19’.
“Associate welfare and safety remains Honda of the UK Manufacturing’s top priority. Honda is continually monitoring all government, Public Health England and Swindon Borough Council Covid guidelines.
“We have implemented a significant number of safety measures that achieve or exceed this guidance to provide a Covid-secure site for our workforce.
“Public Health England and NHS advice states that the current measures of hand hygiene, face masks and social distancing are still the most effective risk measures.”
The spokesman added that associates can provide feedback about safety through their manager, union rep, safety rep or the staff Intranet.
Swindon Borough Council’s director of public health Steve Maddern wrote to Honda ahead of the visit.
He said: “We appreciate these are anxious times for all our residents and those that choose to work in Swindon.
“During the current national lockdown, factories and manufacturers can continue to operate as long as they are able to be Covid secure.
“To the best of our awareness, HUM is following this guidance and has received input and advice from Swindon Borough Council’s (SBC) Public Health team and Public Health England proactively throughout the pandemic.
“Additional practices have been put in place at HUM to further reduce risk, including staff working from home where possible, cohorting of staff in the workplace, appropriate use of PPE and discouraging workers from car sharing.
“To protect those who are most at risk from serious illness, people who are clinically extremely vulnerable are advised not to attend work during the national lockdown.”