Firefighters have been 'limited and delayed' in carrying out potentially life-saving work during the pandemic because of a row over health and safety, according to a watchdog.
The inspector of fire and rescue services said fire bosses and union officials being locked in lengthy and complicated negotiations about working conditions affected how much firefighters were able to contribute to the emergency effort to tackle coronavirus - suggesting ongoing problems may hamper the vaccine rollout
HM Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services Zoë Billingham said the working arrangements between the fire and rescue service National Employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) prevented some firefighters from 'maximising the support they could provide to the public'
She suggested the agreement had become 'more of a hindrance' in some cases.
But the FBU said it 'totally' rejected the findings of the report, branding it a 'political and biased attack on firefighters'.
The fire and rescue services watchdog claimed tensions between fire bosses and the Fire Brigades Union affected how much firefighters were able to contribute o the emergency effort to tackle coronavirus. Pictured: Firefighters joining the Clap for Carers in April
The report comes after union officials claimed the agreement allowing firefighters to help NHS and care workers during the pandemic had been scrapped.
Negotiations over health and safety measures for firefighters carrying out Covid-19 duties were suddenly ended, said the FBU as it branded the move 'irresponsible' and warned it endangered the lives of firefighters, their families and the public.
While National Employers said it was 'frustrated' arrangements could not continue.
Ms Billingham said firefighters were being offered 'exactly' the same protections as other emergency workers, telling reporters: 'As a direct result of the position that the trade union adopted, the ability for fire services to deploy firefighters into potentially life-saving activities was limited and delayed.
'It's not what the public would expect of a fire service that they generally hold in such high admiration and we doubt it is what firefighters would want either. They are dedicated, public spirited professionals who told us they want to help.'
Describing the situation as 'deeply regrettable', she warned ongoing tensions could affect the number of firefighters volunteering to help deliver the mass vaccination programme after the FBU asked members not to come forward.
The FBU said it 'totally' rejected the findings of the report, branding it a 'political and biased attack on firefighters'. Pictured: London Fire Brigade use fire engine to deliver food parcels to those in needs and affected by coronavirus in April
That request was made six weeks ago and 'remains the case today', she added.
The findings of her inspection, which looked at the response of all 45 fire and rescue services in England to the challenges posed by the pandemic, called for leaders to 'act in the national interest' and remove 'unnecessary barriers which are preventing firefighters from providing further support when it is so desperately needed.'
It added: 'Chief fire officers should be unhindered in their ability to deploy their workforce rapidly, safely and effectively to protect the public.'
Citing examples of efforts to crack down on coronavirus being 'thwarted' as a result of such delays, Ms Billingham highlighted a 12-week delay in fire crews being able to knock on doors of people who the Test and Trace programme was struggling to contact in Manchester.
She added: 'You can only imagine if more people had been contacted by test and trace, what potentially the public health benefits of that might be.'
There had also been problems in some cases arranging for firefighters to help other emergency services gain entry to buildings where people were thought to be incapacitated after contracting coronavirus and moving cars so ambulances could get by, inspectors said.
HM Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services Zoë Billingham said the agreement had become 'more of a hindrance' in some cases. Pictured: Firefighters join Clap for Carers outside Hertford Station in April
Nonetheless, Ms Billingham praised the 'inspiring willingness from fire and rescue staff to step up and provide any support they could to help communities during these unprecedented times' and thanked everyone who offered to help.
Overall, inspectors found most fire services had been able to continue responding to blazes during the pandemic and 'many services provided pandemic-specific support outside their statutory duties'.
These included driving ambulances, delivering personal protective equipment, food to the most vulnerable and helping to move the bodies of those who had died from coronavirus.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack accused the inspectorate of doing the bidding of Government and fire chiefs with its finding, saying it 'didn't even have the courtesy' to speak to the union when compiling the report.
He added: 'This report is a political and biased attack on firefighters. It is neither evidence-based nor an independent report and is instead full of untruths and omissions and we totally reject it.'
He said the FBU had 'from the start wholeheartedly supported the response to the pandemic' but the 'message from this report is clear: fire chiefs and the Government don't want workers to have a voice over their own safety or their terms and conditions'.