Waterway Volunteer Organisations Must Think Carefully Before Considering a Return to Work

7th May 2020

IWA will release guidance shortly to help organisations plan their approach to work parties and organised events for use as COVID-19 restrictions are eased. The guidance, to be published after the government statement on Sunday 10th May, will outline a return to work strategy including key considerations to support operations being resumed whilst taking account of the risks associated with COVID-19.

We have chosen to cancel, postpone and alter the delivery of IWA events and activities and the WRG team has cancelled or postponed events on an eight week rolling basis to be reviewed. Canal & River Trust has cancelled events and volunteer work parties for the foreseeable future.

Our volunteers and those of many waterway organisations across the country are eager to get back to championing, maintaining and restoring Britain’s waterways. However, we believe there are long-term strategic and reputational risks for organisations to think about, as well as significant health risks for volunteers, in the face of COVID-19.

We have identified just a few of those risks here, and we expect them to remain in play for many months and perhaps even years:

  • Waterway organisations may face reputation loss and community backlash or reduction in support if volunteers are observed undertaking non-essential work in non-safe circumstances.
  • PPE provisions will be prioritised for key workers with the potential for significant delay in receiving the correct PPE for construction, waterside, and volunteer work.
  • Additional hand washing facilities or the provision of hand sanitisers, and more vigilant cleaning regimes, will be needed.
  • Construction materials and access to plant and equipment may be restricted, with priority given to housing developments and larger infrastructure projects.
  • Working on or near towpaths, with passing members of the public, increases the risk of workers becoming infected as it could make it difficult to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

However important we believe waterway restoration to be, such volunteer work is not likely to be classified as 'essential work'.  

Neil Edwards, IWA Chief Executive, says: “While it is fantastic to see so many volunteers raring to get back to business as usual, we implore all groups to step back and properly assess the risks, so as to avoid the potential for short and long-term damage of prematurely restarting operations. Our guidance will outline the risks and issues that must be considered when beginning to think about a phased approach to working safely in the coming months.”

IWA will continue to work with all waterway organisations, and to offer advice and support that reflects government requirements during the present situation.