The government has not been specific enough about who counts as a key worker in utilities, according to a trade union.

The Department for Education published a list last Friday outlining who counts as an essential worker and therefore will be eligible to have their children looked after at school during the current coronavirus lockdown.

It included civil nuclear, electricity, gas, oil, and water workers. Eligibility includes but is not limited to network operations, field engineering, call centre staff, according to the guidance issued by the DfE.

Prospect, which represents thousands of workers in power utilities, said it was correct for energy workers to be designated as key workers so they can keep working and providing essential services during the pandemic.

However, it said that not all energy workers are essential. Keeping such staff in the workplace puts them at increased risk of infection and also those who are essential to the functioning of the power system, partly because it will be more difficult for workers to maintain safe distances from one another.

Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of Prospect, said: “Energy workers are rightly included in the government’s list of key workers – without them we would not be able to keep the lights on. But the list is not specific enough on which energy workers fall into the key worker category.

“If the interpretation is too broad then those critical workers like control room staff and field operations staff will find it much harder to adhere to distancing guidelines and their health and the continuing operation of the network will be put at risk.

“At present companies are interpreting the guidance too broadly.

“To bolster workforce resilience and protect the most vital staff, employers should be sensible about who they cannot do without.

“This is in the interests of customers and the companies themselves.”

The Energy Networks Association said: “The industry is taking its responsibility to the health and safety of our colleagues extremely seriously and are working closely with Prospect and other unions. We’re grateful for the work our colleagues are doing in very challenging circumstances up and down the country. If the work our employees do can be done from home, we’re insisting they do that. Where this isn’t possible, because of the type of essential work they do keeping Britain’s energy flowing, the social distancing guidelines issued by the UK government apply.”

Meanwhile, Energy UK said: “On behalf of the energy industry, we are working closely with the government to ensure the right critical workers are available and authorised to keep essential energy services running at the same time as employers do everything possible to protect the wellbeing of their staff and support efforts to limit the spread of the virus.”

Sue Ferns is one of the speakers in Utility Week’s #AskUsAnything webinar at 11.45am tomorrow (Friday). You can still ask a question and register here.

What to read next