A college where social distancing was flouted and a lockdown-busting Christmas party was thrown today became the first education employer in Britain to be found to have broken health and safety laws after a teacher died with coronavirus.
Donna Coleman, 42, had her life support machine switched off in January last year after catching coronavirus on December 14 2020 having felt forced to return to Burnley College, whose staff were encouraged not to report their ‘close contacts’ if they caught the killer virus.
On December 18, just four days after Donna tested positive along with at least one other colleague, a boozy and illegal Christmas party was thrown ‘for all staff’ when there was a strict ban on gatherings.
Footage of the party later emerged showing a half-naked staff member wearing a Santa jacket and elf’s tights belting out a painful karaoke rendition of ‘It’s Raining Men’ in front of an assembled cheering crowd of teachers and staff who sang along and filmed it. A fireworks display on the sports pitches followed, but it is not clear if people there were fined by police.
It was on the same day as an infamous Downing Street bash where dozens of No 10 staff downed wine and scoffed cheese while swapping gifts.
Donna was not at the party and was already ill in bed at home having caught Covid while working in an office with two other staff with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation – even after one of them tested positive. She also had to bring in her own masks and hand sanitiser and confided in her sister before she fell ill: ‘I’m frightened for my job, I can’t afford not to be in. There’s 15 of us in our staff room, and there’s no social distancing going on.’
Donna’s sister Stephanie, 39, said it was ‘heartbreaking’ to watch the video taken as her sister was ill. She said: ‘Seeing people partying when we are now having to grieve on the first-anniversary of not having Donna with us, when it all could have been avoided is just heart-breaking. It’s disgraceful.’
One Burnley College worker was dressed in a Santa jacket and festive tights as he performed ‘It’s Raining Men’ by The Weather Girls at an illegal Christmas party when several colleagues had tested positive. Revellers at the lockdown-busting bash cheered, sang and filmed the performance (right)
Donna Coleman, 42, did not attend the parties but had previously raised concerns about Burnley college’s allegedly lax approach to Covid rules, who have now been found to have breach health and safety rules by the Health and Safety Executive
Burnley College was found to have failed to ensure staff safety during the pandemic, the first education sector employer to have done so
HSE report found ‘strong evidence’ Burnley College failed to ensure appropriate control measures
Health and safety failings identified by the HSE include:
- A failure to meet social distancing and ventilation requirements within the office that Donna shared with two colleagues, one of whom also tested positive for Covid on 14 December 2020
- A failure to meet social distancing requirements during meetings held within college with external parties
- A failure to meet social distancing requirements during social activities held by the college on site. On 18 December 2020, Burnley College held a Christmas party for all staff members, despite the increasing number of Covid cases amongst staff
- A failure to inform close contacts of those who tested positive. Staff were being encouraged not to report close contacts and staff and students were not notified if they were defined as a ‘contact’.
- In addition, people representing the Senator Group who visited Burnley College on 10 December 2020 were not notified by Burnley College that they were close contacts to Donna Coleman, who was confirmed positive on the 14 December 2020
- A failure to monitor and enforce wearing of face coverings by some staff members and some senior managers.
Following her death on January 6 2021, an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the college failed to ensure staff and student safety during the outbreak of the virus.
The HSE investigation found that staff were even encouraged not to report their ‘close contacts’ if they caught Covid-19, when Burnley had one of the highest rates of Covid in the UK. And if there was a positive case, staff and students were still not notified if they were defined as a ‘contact’.
The University and College Union, which supported Donna’s family in bringing the case, said the school had ‘endangered the lives of staff and students’.
General secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The Health and Safety Executive has found numerous instances where Burnley College failed in its duties to protect the safety of its staff and students during the deadly second wave of Covid.
‘Whilst the HSE was not able to find that Burnley’s failings directly caused Donna’s death, it is clear that the college endangered the lives of staff and students.
‘The college should not need a year-long investigation to address basic failings like refusing to allow staff to self-isolate when it was a legal requirement or to realise that it is incredibly reckless to push ahead with a Christmas party during a pandemic.
‘Many workers have lost their lives to Covid and today our thoughts remain firmly with Donna’s family.’
Donna worked as a lecturer at the college where she mostly dealt with students pursuing vocational courses.
Many of her pupils were either older people who had found themselves unemployed, teenagers who had been excluded from school or people with special educational needs.
Stephanie Coleman, 39, Donna’s sister, who had worked at the college before, said that programme leader Donna had raised concerns about her safety as students returned to the college in September 2020.
She said: ‘She was asked to go back to do some claims, so she did, as there was only her and another person in the office.
‘At that point, she said there was nothing in place, but it was kind of okay as she’d brought her own mask and taken her own hand sanitiser in.
‘But in September, 100 per cent of staff and a 100 per cent of students back.
‘She told me, ‘There’s 15 of us in our staff room, and there’s no social distancing going on.’
Stephanie Coleman, (front) whose sister Donna, 42, (right) worked at the college and died from Covid-19, said there was a culture of denial about covid at the college
Programme leader Donna began to raise concerns about her safety in the lead up to students returning to the FE college in September. Donna is seen on a night out – she did not attend the college Christmas parties
Stephanie claimed that at the time there was a culture of denial about Covid at the college, with staff often commenting that it didn’t exist within its premises.
She said: ‘The line was ‘Well, Covid doesn’t exist at Burnley college – do you not know?’ But Burnley had one of the highest rates in the country.’
What were the rules on December 18 2020 when the parties happened?
At the time of the parties at Burnley College and Downing Street, both London and Lancashire were in Tier 3.
This meant socialising was banned within outdoor and indoor spaces and hospitality and entertainment venues were closed.
Up to 50 people are said to have attended the No10 gathering, while at Burnley College staff sang karaoke in the sports hall.
Stephanie urged her sister to complain, but Donna said that she was afraid of losing her job.
She said: ‘We spoke daily. We were very, very close, and she said, ‘Steph, I’m frightened for my job, I can’t afford not to be in.’
Stephanie said her sister began to feel unwell during the second week of December, 2020, as more and more cases began to emerge at the college.
She said: ‘On Friday, December, 11, she felt poorly.
‘I was in Lanzarote at the time, and I’d not seen her for two weeks as I didn’t want any contact before going away.
I said: ‘Are you alright, it’s Friday!’ She said, ‘I just don’t feel that great.’ She said, ‘I think I’m just tired, it’s been a busy week.’
‘Two people from her office tested positive over that weekend, so then she went for a test.
Donna first tested positive for Covid on December 14, after beginning to feel ill a few days earlier.
She dealt with symptoms for weeks, feeling unwell but expecting to eventually begin to recover.
It was not until December 29, when her family received a message in a group chat from Donna telling them she had been admitted to A&E at Blackburn Royal Hospital.
But despite the outbreak in positive cases, Stephanie claims that bosses arranged a Christmas party for staff, flouting covid regulations.
She added: ‘I heard about the Christmas party, and I knew it was happening. It was notorious every year.
‘They might have slightly adapted it during the day, but they still provided everybody with a couple of drinks of alcohol each and food separately.
She added: ‘People are at home poorly – we all want Christmas parties, but you don’t do it.
‘You’re a massive college in the centre of town. The rules at the time are that you don’t do it – so why are you?
On Sunday, January 3, Donna told her family she was feeling better and had managed to eat her breakfast.
But hours later Donna’s father was told by Doctors that she would need to be put into a medically induced coma and placed on a ventilator.
On January 6, the family paid a final visit to see Donna, her sisters sat and held hands with her as the life-support machines were switched off.
Stephanie says she felt like the college failed in their duty of care towards her sister and didn’t take her health concerns seriously.
She said: ‘It was like ‘We’re a bubble that’s exempt from it because we’re carrying on as business as usual’, when everybody else in the country – well, most other people in the country – were following the rules.’
Burnley college have been approached for comment.