Escort and security officers working for Serco and other firms have been told to wear face masks in courts and cells amid complaints about inadequate social distancing in the criminal justice system.
The abrupt policy change, which comes into force on Monday, has been imposed by the Ministry of Justice on the outsourcing company, which also runs a widely criticised contact-tracing service for the government that is supposed to limit the spread of coronavirus infections.
The MoJ instruction also requires all security staff, including those working for GeoAmey, another outsourcing company that carries out similar prisoner guarding and transporting duties, to wear masks when on duty.
Until recently it was assumed by the court service that work inside courtrooms was sufficiently socially distanced or individuals adequately protected by perspex screens.
But the rapid rise in infections during the pandemic’s second wave has forced a review of health safety measures. The Guardian has been told of one incident in a criminal trial where a judge requested security staff to put on face masks but they declined to do so.
Concern has been expressed by lawyers and other court staff over the more relaxed regulations inside court buildings compared with compulsory mask wearing in shops.
Last week, the barrister Sarah Forshaw QC tweeted that mask-wearing for security at court would be desirable.
Another barrister tweeted: “Well, none of us could have predicted this. Also, why are GeoAmey etc not telling the cells staff to wear masks or providing PPE? In every cell area I’ve been in during the pandemic, gaolers have been maskless.”
Concerns have also been expressed by Intermediaries for Justice, the experts who sit alongside vulnerable witnesses and defendants in court, helping them to understand and communicate during proceedings.
Catherine O’Neill, the chair of the charity, said: “Our members are concerned that dock officers are not wearing masks. The conference rooms are extremely small and intermediaries throughout the country are reporting concerns that when they visit the custody suites there’s poor ventilation but no one seems to be wearing PPE [personal protective equipment].
“I have seen barristers wearing visors and masks. One judge used gloves. But the dock officers in Serco uniforms were not wearing any PPE. Serco is running the test-and-trace contract. I cannot understand why they do not have a duty to look after their employees and to the prisoners who will be the last to have a voice.
“After being in court the other day where no masks were worn in the building, it felt like a different world when I stepped outside and all the cafes and shops were compliant and doing their best.”
A Serco spokesman said: “As of 21 October [the date the MoJ letter arrived], all Serco officers have been mandated to wear PPE face masks by our customer, the MoJ.
“Prior to that date, safe systems of work were in place which were endorsed by the MOJ, where a risk assessment process determined whether a mask was to be worn; for instance for confirmed or suspected Covid cases only or where the 2-metre rule could not be met.
“All safe systems of work and risk assessments were aligned to PHE guidance; this has clearly now changed to reflect more stringent measures.”
A spokesperson for GeoAmey said: “With limited exceptions, from Monday 26 October it will be mandatory for GeoAmey employees to wear GeoAmey-provided medical-grade PPE face masks when entering an HMPPS establishment, within the court custody suite and associated docks, and aboard vehicles and in offices where social distancing cannot be maintained.”
An MoJ spokesperson said: “All custody and security staff are required to wear masks where social distancing is not possible. Following consultation with partners this will be extended to all circumstances.”
Judges are understood to have been given discretion to decide whether security staff need to wear them while sitting in the dock alongside a defendant.