Published: 10:17, 02 April 2020
| Updated: 16:35, 02 April 2020
Royal Mail workers have walked out in protest against the company's lack of safety measures to protect them from coronavirus.
Staff at the Chatham Delivery Office – where 132 people are based – agreed to take action this morning.
A meeting between Royal Mail and the Communications Workers' Union (CWU) took place yesterday but failed to address concerns, the union said.
A worker at the Chatham office, who wished not to be named, told KentOnline they had been told to carry on working as normal despite a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE).
"But it's not normal. We've had no real social distancing," they said.
"There's 132 people working here and we have tiny bottles of hand sanitiser.
"The golden standard is for us to wash hands but we're all close together.
"The employer [Royal Mail] has not done enough for us to feel like we're kept safe – we've not been provided with PPE.
"We had a general meeting out in the yard and when asked what we would like to do we agreed we don't want to be working there."
Workers claim Royal Mail managers have accused them of over-exaggerating the situation, something staff on the ground deny.
Staff say they are forced to work in close proximity which flouts the government's two-metre social distancing guidelines to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The law states workers are permitted to withdraw their labour if they feel employers are not carrying out obligations to keep workers safe.
It is understood union representatives have now arrived at the delivery office in Best Street.
General secretary of CWU Dave Ward last night told more than 10,000 workers who tuned into a Facebook live broadcast they would stand behind workers.
He said: "We don’t want a row with the company, we want to work with the company and with the government and for the country.
"Have you got right PPE in place, gloves, sanitisers and is social distancing strictly enforced in your office?
“If no, you should not be working and we will back you.”
The union is calling for a suspension of all non-essential unaddressed mail deliveries, prioritising medical equipment and services for the vulberavle and alternating working days for staff to reduce the numbers of people in offices at one time.
CWU deputy general secretary for postal workers Terry Pullinger added: "In many of our buildings, it’s impossible to keep the same amount of people and still work safely and so we need to halve the amount of people coming in on one day.
"We don’t want a row with the company, we want to work with the company and with the government and for the country"
“Deliver half the mail on one day and then all the vehicles and equipment and work can be cleaned for the others coming in the next day.
“In every other sphere of society there are radical decisions and strategies being put in place – now we’re setting out these bold and radical proposals to Royal Mail."
Medway Labour leader Vince Maple says he understands why the workers have concerns.
He added: "It doesn’t matter if it is those delivering mail, collecting black bags, serving in shops, working in care homes or in our NHS.
"Workers on the front line in this crisis must have the appropriate PPE."
Royal Mail said it was disappointed the action had been taken but confirmed at 12.30pm workers had returned to their posts and the service is operating as normal.
A Royal Mail statement said: "Royal Mail takes the health and safety of its colleagues, its customers and the local communities in which we operate very seriously. We have introduced a range of social distancing measures designed to protect both our colleagues and our customers. We continue to follow public health authority preventative guidance.
"The delivery of parcels and letters is a key way of keeping the country together and helping many people who may not have the option to leave their homes We are working hard to deliver the most comprehensive service we can."
The company said it is taking daily medical and health and safety advice on board when assessing risks to its staff.
Parcel handling operations have been changed and passing handheld devices to customers to sign for deliveries has been stopped temporarily.
The statement thanked staff for "keeping the country connected" and also added: "Standard ways of working are being revised to ensure that, wherever possible, colleagues stay two metres apart.
"We have implemented a new rule that means there will only be one person in a Royal Mail delivery vehicle at any one time. These new social distancing measures are aimed at offering further protection for our colleagues and our customers.
"We have taken a number of additional measures and provided preventative guidance to our colleagues in line with public health authorities.
"This includes promoting regular hand washing with soap and water. The hand soap that we provide is effective for hand washing and good hand hygiene.
"We are providing disposable latex gloves to colleagues who want them. These are available on request. We have also adopted enhanced disinfectant cleaning of communal areas in all Royal Mail sites on a daily basis.
"We are already delivering vital Government mail in relation to coronavirus, including plans for testing kits. We are working closely with pharmacy companies and NHS trusts across the UK. And we are delivering many prescriptions and hospital appointments. This is a key priority for us."