Justice chiefs have been admonished after a London crown court failed a Covid-19 inspection into cleaning measures and social distancing.
Courts have stayed open during the pandemic, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) relying on increased cleaning regimes, distancing and plexiglass screens, and one-way systems to declare the buildings “Covid-secure”.
But HSE inspector Sarah Pearce found Isleworth was falling short in some areas, and warned the issues could be replicated across the national courts estate.
“HMCTS clearly have procedures in place across your organisation to reduce the transmission of Covid-19”, she said. “However, these procedures do not appear to have been fully implemented at Isleworth Crown Court.”
She added in her letter to HMCTS: “It may be prudent to assess other premises where similar issues may eventuate to ensure that you keep employees and others, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe.”
The MoJ says it is assessing the HSE findings, which were delivered on Monday, but insists Isleworth crown court “continues to operate safely”.
The news comes as staff at 12 courts – including Isleworth - are balloted on possible strike action by the Public and Commercial Services Union over safety fears.
The union has accused HMCTS of failing to “take timely and appropriate action to improve safety measures”, insisting safety marshals should be patrolling court buildings and lateral flow tests should be urgently rolled out nationally.
During her inspection, Ms Pearce found social distancing measures “had not been adequately thought through” in parts of the court building, and a “disproportionately high” number of staff were in the admin department even though no trials were sitting that day.
“Two colleagues were also seen standing talking about work looking at the same screen within a metre distance of one another”, she commented.
She noted regular reminders of the need to stay 2m apart are issued through the day, but criticised the “complex” one-way system in the court’s back office which she said was being ignored.
The inspector observed cleaning taking place, but pointed out cleaners had not been properly instructions on which “contact points” – such as door handles and desks – need regularly wiping down.
Ms Pearce also suggested daily deep cleans wound be hindered by legal folders and evidence bundles left lying around in a courtroom, and urged bosses to monitor the number of people attending court each day.
“This risk may increase when lockdown measures are relaxed, with additional member of the public potentially attending trials”, she said.
Isleworth was not required to shut down in the wake of the inspection, and there has been no sign of increased transmission of the virus among users of the court.
New figures show there were 164 positive Covid tests among court users over four weeks in January and February, including one juror at Isleworth. Justice minister Chris Philp said infections at court are falling in line with the national trends.
An HMCTS spokesperson told the Standard: “All of our courts meet strict public health standards and government Covid-secure guidelines.
“Isleworth Crown Court continues to operate safely and we will respond to the Health and Safety Executive in due course.”
The union strike ballot closed on Friday.