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COVID legislation ‘toothless’ and ‘racist’, say London EHPs

Small specialist businesses, often run by BAME people, at a disadvantage as large corporate rivals continue to trade.
15 February 2021 , Katie Coyne

London EH officers have said the lack of statutory COVID-19 enforcement protocols from Westminster is resulting in indirect race discrimination.

The Association of London Environmental Health Managers has said that large shops such as supermarkets and mixed retailers are able to use loopholes and “bully boy tactics” to trade more widely, while smaller specialist retailers are having to stay closed.

Many of these smaller shops are run by BAME people, and serve BAME communities. ALEHM said its members have been accused of racism.

Because it is patently unfair, some local authorities are being more lenient than they should be with the smaller shops, according to the association. Local authorities are concerned to support their local communities, which includes local businesses, and their local economy.

ALEHM wrote to the Office of Product Safety and Standards, part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), with its concerns at the start of February but has not heard anything back yet.

Association secretary Janine Avery said: “I've heard it from a number of boroughs, in all different parts of London. I wouldn't say I've heard it from everybody, but I haven't asked the question of everybody.

“I've just pulled together the information that's been given to me. And whenever I mentioned it, others have said ‘yes’ there is concern about that.”

She added: “I think it's the unfairness that small businesses feel they're being so badly treated. And if they are an ethnic business, then that's immediately what you see.

“You see all the big companies appearing to be operating as normal, and you as a small ethnic business are not. And it's also supplying the ethnic community as well, they're not being able to get what they need because their businesses are being forced to close down.”

Avery added: “I'm sure the government would say that the legislation is not discriminatory. But that's the impression that is being given on the ground.”

While restrictions may start to be lifted within the next month, the Association argues central government needs to take action. It wants the guidance to be made statutory so there is legal recourse, and to apply direct pressure to the larger retail chains – and to primary authorities (PAs) – to make retailers comply.

ALEHM has examples of PAs backing retailers against other local authorities trying to enforce COVID restrictions, because they are not legally enforceable, which Avery described as very “uncomfortable”. The association also want to see click and collect for non-essential goods prohibited during lockdown.

Many more shops are open during this lockdown, not because of a change in guidance, said Avery, just that many more businesses are using exemptions. And officers in England only have “policy intention” that is not enforceable.

The Association argued this is resulting in its members being tied-up dealing with a “range of creative attempts” by non-essential businesses to continue to operate. Busier high streets, are also exposing EH officers trying to enforce the restrictions, to greater risk, which is also a huge concern.

At the time of publishing BEIS did not provide a comment.

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