A college that was found to have breached Covid health and safety laws after the death of a teacher will not face police investigation.
Burnley College was reported to Lancashire Constabulary by the family of Donna Coleman after the Health and Safety Executive found the college held a Christmas party on December 18, 2020, which failed to meet social-distancing rules despite increasing coronavirus cases among staff.
The party took place on the same day as one of the Downing Street parties which received a penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police.
At the time, the country was in “very high alert” tier 3 restrictions, where outdoor and indoor socialising was banned, and hospitality and entertainment venues were closed.
But Lancashire police has decided that it will not be further investigating Burnley College or be issuing fixed-penalty notices to those involved.
Coleman’s family said they were “extremely disappointed and disgusted in the way the police have dealt with this”.
In a letter to the family, Lancashire police detective chief inspector Tim Brown said a retrospective investigation means the force could not conduct three of the “four E’s” approach to fixed-penalty notices relating to Covid of “engaging, explaining and encouraging”. To move straight to “enforcement” would be “inconsistent with our policy throughout the pandemic”, Brown said.
He added that the police also considered the HSE’s ruling for Burnley College to pay a fee for “contraventions of health and safety law” and was “satisfied that this is an appropriate and proportionate response”.
Coleman’s family requested that the police also considers if the individuals involved at Burnley College should be fined, since government officials were following similar allegations.
Brown said that representatives and staff of a college “do hold a position of responsibility and influence and have a degree of authority over others” and are expected to “conduct themselves professionally and uphold high standards”.
But “they are not, however, public officials, they are members of the public”, Brown said, adding: “In my view, their positions in the community and at work do not set them apart from any other member of the public when considering how this matter should be dealt with.
“Government officials, however, are responsible for drafting the relevant legislation, setting the tone as to how it is enforced and showing leadership to the rest of the country as to how they should conduct themselves in a time of national emergency.”
Donna Coleman’s sister Victoria was outraged with the police response.
She told FE Week: “We sent video evidence to the police of an illegal Covid Christmas party, with alcohol and karaoke, whilst Burnley had the highest number of Covid cases in the UK at the time. We feel that the principal of the college had a responsibility and a duty of care to protect the wellbeing and safety of the staff and the wider community.
“It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to us as a family that somebody in a position of authority could act with such moral turpitude and not be prosecuted.”
The HSE – the government agency that polices workplace safety – opened a fatality investigation into Donna Coleman’s death after the University and College Union raised Covid health and safety concerns at Burnley College during the pandemic.
Coleman tested positive for coronavirus on December 14 and died on January 6, 2021, aged 42.
The HSE found the college failed to meet social distancing and ventilation requirements, failed to enforce the wearing of face coverings by some staff and senior managers, and that staff were being encouraged not to report close contacts of Covid.
However, the HSE ultimately ruled that it was “impossible to conclude that from the evidence presented, on the balance of probabilities, that Donna Coleman’s exposure to Covid-19 took place within the workplace”.
But the HSE did rule that health and safety laws were “broken”, and Burnley College is being forced to pay a fee to cover administrative costs due to these “material breaches”.
The UCU and the Coleman family are appealing the HSE’s inconclusive ruling.
UCU regional support official Marie Monaghan claimed the college has yet to offer Coleman’s family an apology for her tragic death and has “doubled down on insisting its reckless behaviour had no impact on Donna contracting Covid”.
While there will be no police investigation or enforcement, Brown said he does intend to bring his report to the attention of Burnley College, “so that they can consider themselves whether it would be appropriate for internal action to be taken”.
Burnley College did not respond to requests for comment.