Gateshead set up a COVID-19 business compliance team to ensure restrictions and safety guidelines were adhered to and helped local businesses cope with change.
At the start of the pandemic Gateshead set up a COVID-19 business compliance team to ensure restrictions and safety guidelines were adhered to. Officers drawn from environmental health and trading standards were supported by other regulatory staff from across the council to support business and, where necessary, take enforcement action.
Much of the work was about helping business operate safely during the pandemic – for example the team helped keep a touring circus open in the summer and fish and chip shops safe during their busy Easter weekend as well as working alongside public health officers to identify outbreaks in workplaces.
How we set up business compliance team
The business compliance team involved a core group of 10 environmental health and trading standards officers which was supplemented by a wider pool of staff drawn in from other parts of the council.
At one point there were another 20 staff from areas such as fly tipping, planning and highways enforcement involved on top of a 14-strong team of COVID-19 support officers, who were council officers redeployed from areas such as leisure. The team was supported by four police officers who joined them on patrols.
Compliance and Regulatory Services Manager Elaine Rudman, who led the business compliance team, said: “As soon as the first lockdown started we received complaints of businesses breaching the rules and we knew we had to act quickly. We had people out on the street talking to businesses about the rules and checking to see if they were acting within them. Most of the time we were able to resolve the issue without taking enforcement action, such as issuing fixed penalty notices.
“We also had a solicitor to hand to provide advice. Most complaints were about businesses opening when they shouldn’t – we had cases where non-essential shops started selling things like toilet rolls and claiming they were an essential service.
“As things started opening up, businesses did need support interpreting the guidance. Things kept changing very quickly. We were there providing advice about social distancing and putting the right safety procedures in place.”
‘We helped keep a circus going safely’
The team took a proactive approach. At Easter in 2020 the team recognised that fish and chip shops would be very busy, so officers were out in force helping with advice about queuing and social distancing.
As restrictions continued to ease, there was an emphasis on working with businesses to allow them to operate in a safe way. One example of this was when a circus opened in the summer of 2020. Environmental Health Officer Gordon Smiles visited it and realised the circus was in breach of the regulations at the time.
He said: “They were just about to start their show - there was more than 100 people due to attend the first one. I could see that there were some fairly straightforward changes we could make that would make it safer. Steps like filling the seats and rows in an ordered fashion, controlling movements in the breaks and, at the end, organising exiting so people left a row at a time.
“It meant the circus could remain open and we actually heard later that as they carried on with their tour they kept those systems in place and were able to tour safely.”
The impression of regulatory services is that we just want to take action – but we really tried to work with businesses so they could keep going if possible.
The team also spent a lot of time with liaising and advising with different faith groups about religious festivals and events. Environmental Health and Community Safety Manager Peter Wright said: “We have a big Orthodox Jewish community – people come from Israel to study. The community has big events and street parties. But we had to be very careful not to be seen to be allowing things that were against the rules – we were concerned about inflaming community tensions and public disorder.
“We spent a lot of time talking to them. There was another time when we heard about an event planned for Eid – again we discussed it with faith leaders and were able to avoid problems. It is about engaging and explaining.”
Working alongside public health
But as well as providing advice and ensuring compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, the team has also been instrumental in supporting public health when there has been outbreaks.
Mr Wright said: “Infection outbreaks are the bread and butter work of environmental health officers so the team has worked with businesses that have seen outbreaks. We have been in alongside public health to piece together what is happening and what the source of the outbreaks have been.
“There was one food factory we worked with that had quite a significant outbreak – they were getting to the point where they may have had to close because of so many staff were open. We were able to go in and look at what was happening – a big issue was not what was happening in the factory but outside. People sharing cars to work and living together. That enabled us to bring the outbreak under control and the factory never did have to close.”
With growing uncertainty with what the future may bring with the rise of the Omicron variant, the team is ready to be reactivated if needed.
“We don’t know what is going to happen in the coming months, but if support is needed the team is still there. The way it was set up means we can pull people in at short notice if we need to. The experience has resulted in extremely close working relationships between our regulatory teams which is a huge benefit,” added Ms Rudman.
Environmental Health and Community Safety Manager