Unite is in “positive and constructive” talks with utility bosses about the coronavirus outbreak to ensure its members are not put under “undue risk” whilst maintaining essential services.

With remote working unavailable to many energy, network and water sector employees, the union is discussing contingency plans for Covid-19 with company leaders, as local shop stewards take “a pragmatic view”.

Speaking just a few hours before prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday (16 March) advising people to avoid all non-essential social contact for 12 weeks, the union’s national officer for energy and utilities, Peter McIntosh, said it was being guided by the same medical and government advice as the public.

However, he said a public service ethos was “inherent” in its members due to their “unique responsibility” for keeping the country’s lights on and is taps running.

“Unfortunately, a lot of our members can’t work from home because of the type of work that they carry out, but they shouldn’t put themselves at undue risk.

“We need to have contingency plans, so we’re working with companies on how best to do that. And that’s being done by the local stewards who are taking a pragmatic view and advice and guidance on how best they [Unite members] can ensure they keep themselves safe and provide that essential service for the public.”

McIntosh added there were no concerns at present over members receiving sick pay if they had to stay at home due to Covid-19.

“All the indications are that we are working constructively with employers about payments for people. There may be some hiccups about self-isolation but we’re working through all of that. I don’t have any concerns across the sector that, if people were presenting with the illness, the companies would do the right thing by maintaining their sick-pay schemes.”

On redundancies, he added it was way too early to be contemplating any such scenario as a result of the Coronavirus. “The companies are looking at a range of options, but not linked to the outbreak of Covid-19.

“I don’t see anything yet that the companies are utilising this as an excuse to downsize the workforce. I’m getting no indication of that whatsoever.”

But he admitted that workers may at some stage be asked to be more flexible.

“Again, it’s all about the relationship with the organisation and these unprecedented times may call for certain things to be done on a temporary basis. It’s our hope that as long as we sit down and we have constructive dialogue with the employers, then we can come to an arrangement that makes sure we’re doing the right thing for everyone concerned.

“We are in constant talks. We are working proactively and positively with all of the utility companies and I don’t see that changing – even if the situation escalates.”

The union spokesman had no official figures on the potential number of Unite members who may have contracted the virus.

Accepting that some contact with consumers, especially vulnerable customers, could prove particularly challenging for the safety of frontline staff in the days ahead, he said: “My expectation is that advice would be given to our members.

“The reality of the situation is changing day by day. As advice comes out, I feel confident that shop stewards and officers can deal with the situation and take the appropriate measures.”

Talks will also be ongoing with other unions with members in the industry, such as GMB, Unison and Prospect, during this demanding period.

“It’s a worrying time not only for our members, but for the general public as well. But we will support our members throughout this to make sure that they get the appropriate representation, to make sure that decisions are taken, and that we are consulted before any changes are implemented across the organisations.”

McIntosh was also speaking a few minutes ahead of joining a national industrial sector committee meeting involving all its shop stewards, conducted for safety reasons via a combination of face-to-face and teleconferencing talks.