Cleaning and hygiene will be top of the agenda for years

Delia Cannings looks at how the profile of hygiene importance has been raised to a new level that must be maintained moving beyond Covid-19

The awful experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the public’s attitude towards cleanliness and the work of cleaning and hygiene staff. Those of us in the cleaning and hygiene sector knew how essential our work was but this was not always appreciated before Covid-19 struck.

The importance of the work of cleaning teams was best understood in the healthcare sector, as it is essential to stop infections spreading and so plays a vital role in protecting the lives of patients who are often already sick and vulnerable.

But the industry’s health and safety role also extends to other sectors, such as the chemical industry, where it can be a matter of life and death.

In the hotels and hospitality sector, customers have always expected good standards of cleanliness and, if workplaces were unhygienic and untidy, I’m sure clients and staff would soon vote with their feet. But despite this, cleanliness and hygiene was often not a top priority outside the home. At times, cleaning specifications were reduced and the frequency of cleaning and schedules lessened to reduce costs.

Our industry employs 1.47 million people and is one of the ten biggest in the country, but our workforce was often invisible before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, partly due to workplace cleaning often happening out of hours and contract cleaning operatives being separate from the main workforce.

The terrible tragedy of Covid 19 has now put cleaning and hygiene right at the top of the agenda. The bravery of the many operatives who have worked to protect the health and safety of others, often at risk to themselves, throughout the pandemic, has been readily apparent.

While many members of the public have been able to work from home in a safer environment, cleaning and hygiene operatives have gone to work on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus.

During the pandemic, cleaning staff have consistently gone above and beyond. For example, in the healthcare sector, my ahcp colleagues are directly involved in managing and delivering cleaning and hygiene services in most NHS and independent hospitals.

Members also hold key roles in many primary care and GP clinics and surgeries, nursing and care homes and other residential care settings provided by the public, charitable and private sectors.

Healthcare cleaning operatives have never relented in dedication and commitment during this period. Many have worked longer hours, taken on extra responsibilities and adopted new standards and practices to prevent Covid-19 contamination.

Colleagues also played a vital role setting up and staffing Nightingale Hospitals. Cleaning teams showed huge camaraderie, supporting each other, holding each other up and, sadly, falling in a pile together when the exhaustion kicked in. But as the pandemic wore on, it took its toll with cleaning teams very stretched in some parts of the country.

Pure fatigue affected many colleagues and many also had to self-isolate at some point. We’ve seen drinking, smoking and substance abuse issues, mental health issues, anxiety and depression, self-harm and suicide rates all on the rise.

Other sectors
Our cleaning and hygiene colleagues throughout the industry have helped keep other key sectors such as social care, education, key public services, local and national government, supermarkets and the food supply chain and the transport network going.

Without cleaning and hygiene staff keeping workplaces free of coronavirus, people would get sick and these essential industries would grind to a halt.And let’s not forget the staff working in the manufacture and supply of products such as masks and hand sanitiser, which have been in huge demand by the public, and the disinfectants, sanitisers, cleaning products, equipment and machinery which staff rely on.

So it was wonderful to see this incredible contribution by cleaning and hygiene colleagues recognised last year by both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament.

The Prime Minister and the former leader of the Labour Party were taking part in Prime Minister’s Questions when Mr Corbyn praised the ‘unsung heroes’ of the public sector who ‘keep us safe’ during the outbreak.

He went on to add: “I’d like to pay special mention to one group that are hugely ignored, forgotten and decried as unskilled workers – cleaners. All around the country and in this building, (they) are doing their best to keep our places hygienic and safe.

“The Prime Minister agreed, saying they were doing an ‘extraordinary job’. Yet despite all this, the government has never explicitly named cleaning and hygiene staff as key and essential workers, which is nothing short of infuriating.

The role of cleaning
The British Cleaning Council has been campaigning throughout the pandemic for this recognition and it is hard to believe that a year and half after the virus reached our shores, we are still having to fight for key and essential worker status for all our colleagues.

As we move forward and the UK looks to recover from the pandemic, it is clear that the role of the cleaning and hygiene sector and its staff in maintaining clean, sanitised and safe premises and environments will continue to be vital.

High hygiene standards of cleanliness and hygiene are essential if we are to protect the health and well-being of people and reassure them as they return to workplaces and public spaces.

A number of recent surveys have made it clear what the public thinks on this issue. For example, last year, one survey found that 80 per cent of consumers are now more aware of hygiene practices when outside the home and the vast majority would not enter a public space if it wasn’t Covid secure.

A more recent poll about the hospitality industry found that over half of people reported hygiene to be the most important quality they look for from hospitality businesses, well ahead of any other consideration.

And, in a third example, independent research involving 1,000 people showed that the mere sight of disinfection happening in public spaces could go a long way to creating the confidence people need to feel safe and return to the site.

It is clear that the public now demands to see highly visible, professional cleaning to a high standard in our public spaces.

Since the start of the pandemic many premises and particularly education, retail, healthcare establishments and care homes have introduced improved and expanded sanitisation regimes. 

I expect to see a larger investment in cleaning programmes throughout the UK with enhanced specifications and more frequent schedules for years to come.Nobody is going to forget this awful pandemic and the vital importance of cleaning and hygiene anytime soon.

Delia Cannings is Deputy Chair of the British Cleaning Council and National Education and Training Lead, Association of Healthcare Cleaning Professionals (ahcp).