After Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in Europe, the virus causing the disease, SARS-CoV2, needed to be classified so as to allow the provisions of the European directive on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to biological agents at work to be applied. Alongside general provisions applicable to all biological risks, this directive contains. further provisions reflecting the hazard level associated with an agent. There are four risk groups, ranging from Group 1 (unlikely to cause human disease) to Group 4 (causes severe human disease and is a serious hazard to workers).
In this context, the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) asked Professor Jean-Pierre Unger from the University of Newcastle to conduct a Covid-19 assessment on the basis of the scientific data available in May 2020. The study concludes that the Covid-19 characteristics justify its classification in Group 4. Contaminated workers in contact with the public play an important role in disseminating the virus. In hospitals and nursing homes, they increase the overall case fatality rate. By strongly protecting these workers and professionals, the European Union would not only improve health in work environments, but also activate a mechanism key to reducing the COVID-19 burden in the general population. Admittedly, the availability of a new vaccine or treatment would change this conclusion, which was reached in the middle of the first pandemic. After peer-reviewing Professor Unger’s study, the International Journal of Health Services published it in August 2020.
On 3 June, the European Commission adopted the directive classifying SARS-CoV2 in Group 3, an intermediate risk category. This classification is out of line with the criteria set forth in the directive adopted by the European Parliament and Council. In particular, it does not respect the precautionary principle set forth in the directive’s Article 18 §3 which states that the highest risk group must be selected when a biological agent’s characteristics allow different classifications. In the case of SARS-CoV2, the absence of a vaccine and the wie scope of work-related contamination clearly point to the virus needing to be classified in Group 4.
For the trade unions, this controversial decision of the European Commission risks promoting a double standard of protection. Throughout the history of mankind, public health measures have never reached such intensity as in those countries most affected by Covid-19. But as regards occupational health, we are seeing risks being played down, with prevention policy rarely going beyond strictly hygiene-related safety precautions.