DEFRA in COVID-19 contingency talks with waste sector

DEFRA is in talks with the waste industry and local authorities about ensuring collection and disposal services continue to operate as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the UK, environment minister Rebecca Pow has confirmed.

Pow also revealed that extra funding may be made available to deal with the crisis, amid concerns that with 80% of the UK’s population projected to contract the disease and many being required to self-isolate, collection crew numbers could dwindle.

Pow made the comment on Tuesday in response to a written question from shadow communities minister Stephen Morgan. He asked what discussions Pow had had with the communities and local government secretary Robert Jenrick “on potential risks arising from workforce challenges caused by COVID-19”.

He also asked the minister what assessment had made of the potential effect on public health of undisposed waste arising from local authority workforce challenges caused by covid-19 and what additional funding will be made available to local authorities to deal with these potential challenges.

Pow said: “DEFRA is engaging with the waste industry, local authorities, the Environment Agency (EA) and other relevant parties to discuss contingency planning for waste management as a result of potential workforce challenges.

“These discussions include consideration of potential risks and impacts and whether further measures or resources funding might be necessary,” she added.

ENDS revealed last week that the clinical waste industry was in contingency talks with the government. The waste industry said there was “some spare capacity” to deal with an expected surge in clinical waste but old facilities capable of treating medical waste are being brought back online while new facilities will be brought online earlier than planned to deal with the extra waste.

The EA has also confirmed it is considering currently reviewing the need for Regulatory Position Statements (RPS), which allow waste operators to deviate from normal rules in special circumstances. ENDs understands an RPS could be introduced imminently to allow facilities to accept decontamination wastes generated after buildings have been deep cleaned and exposed to the coronavirus.

Regrettably, little is presently to be seen to improve safety and hygiene precautions for waste handlers in hospitals and in the disposal sector. Save to hint at the value of double-bagging COVID-19 waste and possibly to hold it for a minimum 2 days before disposal, the practicalities of these suggestions are such that it seems reasonable to conclude that it simply will not happen.

This is a real health and safety issue for waste handlers, the safety and hygiene precautions for which are already woefully inadequate. Let’s hope that it improves, improves quickened and that improvements are sustained.

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