GLASGOW (Bloomberg) –The UK oil and gas industry says blanket testing of its workers is essential to avoid Covid-19 outbreaks offshore, but the authorities have so far refused to provide the means to do so.
The standoff creates another threat for an industry that’s already reeling from a deep price slump. Outbreaks on cruise ships were among the first signs of the threat posed by the coronavirus, and conditions on offshore oil facilities are similar.
The danger is underscored by the deaths of 227 oil workers at Petroleos Mexicanos, the highest toll of any company worldwide.
“Oil platforms are just like cruise liners” in terms of infection risk, said Jake Molloy, an organizer for offshore workers at the RMT union. “The confined space, the communal areas, food handling, hygiene, everything.”
Anyone in the UK can get tested for the coronavirus if they have symptoms. The British government — criticized for inadequate testing during the initial stages of the pandemic — now says it has the capacity to do 300,000 assessments a day.
But asymptomatic tests — medical examinations that check for Covid-19 in a person not showing signs of the illness — are only available for front-line workers in the National Heath Service.
The industry has been pushing for a policy change since early July, when Deirdre Michie, chief executive officer of lobby group Oil and Gas UK, issued a “plea” for blanket testing of offshore workers at a hearing in parliament.
Companies have done a good job of limiting the number of cases, Michie said, with some paying for their own tests. But the industry needs to be ready for “second spikes” as it scales up production and brings more workers back to rigs, she said.
The UK Department for Health declined to comment on its plans for oil and gas workers, saying it would wait for the results of a trial into asymptomatic testing for employees in other industries.
The UK North Sea‘s main hub is the city of Aberdeen in Scotland. The regional government currently has no plans to offer the oil industry asymptomatic tests. Such measures “would not remove the risk of people incubating the disease becoming symptomatic offshore” according to a spokesperson from Public Health Scotland.
Trevor Stapleton, health and safety director for Oil and Gas UK, acknowledged this risk but said blanket testing is worth doing anyway.
“Even if we stop one case going offshore, that’s a massive win for us,” said Stapleton. “To be able to distinguish between coughs, colds and Covid is going to be pretty important.”
The UK is reliant on the North Sea for domestic energy supply, so the personnel that produce it are “absolutely critical,” said the RMT’s Molloy. They should be included in the Department for Health‘s pilot study in which people whose job puts them at high risk of infection, such as shop workers and taxi drivers, receive tests without having symptoms, he said.
“So taxi drivers are now being given tests, but not key workers in the energy sector?” said Molloy. “This seems like a no-brainer.”