WORKERS from businesses across the North-East have expressed confusion about whether their workplaces should be open amid concerns that companies are not following rules on social distancing during the coronavirus crisis.

A number of concerned workers have been in touch with The Northern Echo to ask why more is not being done to protect their health as they continue to work, while others are confused about why their companies have remained open.

Several readers have been in touch about Capita, in Darlington, which has remained open.

One mother, whose daughter works at the contact centre, said desks had been moved further apart but they are still working in close proximity.

She said: “We are concerned they are not observing the rules and keeping them apart.

“I think they need to know that people are concerned.”

Another concerned employee said: “We thought we would have been sent home today following government guidelines but we have heard nothing from the CEO and when we try to find out what's going on it’s a wall of silence like it’s business as usual. We are all very worried as we don't want to come to work because of the virus or indeed spread anything about.

“However we don't want to stay at home if we won't get paid but no one in the company is telling us anything.”

A spokesperson for Capita said: “The top priority of Capita at this very difficult time is the well-being of our people.

“Many of our employees work for clients in sectors including utilities, telecommunications and financial services, who continue to need services in these challenging times.

“We have made arrangements for as many of our colleagues to work from home as possible, and have been increasing our capacity to support remote working every day.

“From now on, the only people who will be working from a Capita office are key workers as defined by the Government, or who are within an exceptional category of people providing other essential services – and for whom it remains not possible to work from home.

“Where homeworking is not possible, we are making adjustments in our workplaces to ensure that we are following all government guidelines, including on social distancing and handwashing.

“We are constantly reviewing our practices as government guidance changes.”

Concerns have also been raised about workers not being able to do social distancing at Altrad, an industrial company in Wilton, Redcar.

One person, whose partner works for the company, said a “couple of hundred” men had to share a cabin, with only one bar of soap.

She added: “There is no choice of social distancing.”

A spokesperson from Altrad said: “Altrad UK support a number of critical human infrastructure assets which provide power, fuel and other essential services on which our nation relies.

“The safety and wellbeing of our employees is of the utmost importance and we continue to follow government guidance as it's issued.”

A number of staff at manufacturing firms across County Durham, Darlington and Teesside have also contacted The Northern Echo to express their surprise that their firms are still running as normal.

On Monday, the Government said all non-essential businesses should close, including retail stores selling non-essential goods, leisure facilities, pubs and restaurants and hotels.

People are allowed to travel to and from work, but only when the work cannot be done at home.

The Government says certain jobs, including operating machinery, working in construction or manufacturing, or delivering front line services, require people to travel to work.

A statement released by the cabinet office says: “People can travel to and from work, but only where the work they do cannot be done from home.

“With the exception of closing non-essential shops and public spaces, the Government has not required any other businesses to close – indeed it is important for business to carry on.

“Employers and employees should discuss their working arrangements, and employers should take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home, including providing suitable IT and equipment to enable remote working.

“Sometimes this will not be possible, as not everyone can work from home.

“Certain jobs require people to travel to their place of work – for instance if they operate machinery, work in construction or manufacturing, or are delivering front line services.

“If you cannot work from home then you can still travel to work, provided you are well and neither you nor any of your household are self-isolating. This is consistent with advice from the Chief Medical Officer.

“Employers who have people in their offices or onsite should ensure that employees are able to follow Public Health England guidelines including, where possible, maintaining a two metre distance from others, and washing their hands with soap and water often for at least 20 seconds (or using hand sanitiser gel if soap and water is not available).”

Several residents have expressed concern about Husqvarna in Newton Aycliffe, a luxury lawnmower manufacturing business.

One employee said that they were ‘disgusted’ at what they had witnessed this week, saying “we should be having the same opportunity as most of the country to self-isolate”.

Another employee said: “We make lawnmowers and nothing has been put in place with regulations to the coronavirus. All we have is hand sanitisers near the entrance and they are complaining we are using it too fast.”

A spokesperson for Husqvarna said they had “actively reduced the number of personnel” on their sites and that they were “following the situation closely, both globally and locally”.

They also said that they have a global environment, health and safety network with the Husqvarna Group who very early on adopted health and safety guidelines.

“The guidelines were adopted at our Aycliffe site several weeks ago,” a spokesperson said. “Currently, we are running production lines with a lower pace and with less people to allow distance (two metres) as well as asking people to stay home when feeling unwell.”

The business said they have increased cleaning on site and have urged employees to wash their hands regularly.

Furthermore, they said that sometimes working from home would not be possible, “as not everyone can work from home. Certain jobs require people to travel to their place of work – for instance if they operate machinery, work in construction or manufacturing, or are delivering front line services.”

Another Darlington based business that has remained open is HC-One.

An employee said: “I’m currently working within HC-one ‘the kind care company’ head office in Darlington, 90 per cent of our office have been sent to work from home however the call centre which is non-essential has remained open and the two metres is not being applied.

“We have not been provided with any hand-gel and have not been put down to skeleton staff. I feel as though being the biggest care home in the country they should be looking after their staff a lot better.”

A spokesperson for HC-One said: “Our colleagues are vital to us and our response to coronavirus, and we will always take action to protect their health and wellbeing.

“Following the Government’s advice, we have taken action to protect our Careline Team, including: completing daily temperature checks on all colleagues at the office, deep cleaning of communal areas, and reconfiguring desks so colleagues can maintain ‘social distancing’ rules at all times.

“As critical key workers, the Careline Team remains open to answer the nearly 2,000 calls we receive each day from the relatives of loved one in our homes, and from social workers and the NHS who need HC-One’s support to free up much-needed hospital capacity. Every one of these calls is vitally important to the country’s fight against coronavirus, and also means our home-level teams can maintain their focus on our residents.

“Every one of our colleagues, including the Careline Team, are part of our ‘Caring Army’ of key workers who are helping this country overcome the challenges of coronavirus whilst keeping older people in communities nationally safe and well. We couldn’t be prouder of our colleagues and their commitment to our residents and each other at this unprecedented time.”

Employees from Nobia or Magnet, a kitchen manufacturer are also concerned.

One employee said it was “impossible to keep the two metre distance as one line has six people on a fairly short line passing each other for various components that go into the flat packs” and “if people were doing this out of company premises they would be fined or arrested for gathering in groups but seeing they are in Magnet nothing is done.”

A spokesperson from Nobia said: “The health and safety of our team is our number one priority and we are constantly making necessary changes to the way we operate to ensure we have a safe working environment during this difficult time.

“As a manufacturer, we are carefully following government recommendations to keep Britain’s supply chains moving - it’s critical that we have the right people and shift patterns in place to allow us to make the products our customers need.

“Our health and safety team is working hard to ensure that anyone working at our site has the right protective equipment and staff are expected to follow enhanced hygiene procedures. All colleagues are expected to strictly follow the government advice on social distancing, we have closed the staff canteen and the number of people in the factory has been significantly reduced.

“We need to balance the needs of our customers, at this difficult time. These include tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance in accordance with government guidelines and homeowners who might be without a kitchen to cook or clean in and so require their new one to properly care for their families while remaining at home.”