Update 25 March: the Government has issued guidance on business closures for local authorities. Download it here.
Confusion remains over some of the practicalities of enforcing the government’s lockdown of businesses – but it’s clear environmental health will play a key role.
On Saturday (21 March) enforcement powers and restrictions were enabled under the Government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus, Business Closure) (England) Regulations 2020.
On Monday evening (23 March), all non-essential retail stores, including hair, beauty and nail salons and markets (excluding food markets), were ordered to close (the Government's guidance on this is here).
Responsibility for enforcing the shutdown lies with EH and trading standards officers with police backup where needed. This was a welcome change in direction from the previous week when London EHPs were told by PHE that they would not be involved in COVID-19 control measures – although this related to infected persons refusing to self-isolate rather than businesses refusing to close.
Originally, the Saturday announcement said prohibition notices could be used to shut down non-compliant businesses – but the HSE stepped in shortly afterwards to warn that existing notices, certainly one under the Health and Safety Act, should not be used in this way.
But it is still not entirely clear how EHPs should enforce. One EHP working said: “Reg 4 states ‘a person designated by the secretary of state, may take such action as is necessary to enforce a closure or restriction imposed by regulation 2’.
“That reads as though a designated person can pretty much take any action to force closure. Draconian and non-specific stuff!”
A bigger practical problem may be police support. Depending on the numbers of police staff available, and the pressures and other incidents a local force may be dealing with, officers may not be readily available.
One EHP commented: “This is a grey area. There’s no clarity on that. Will we get support from them when it’s something that they might not deem essential? We would simply tell a business operator to close but it’s up to them to make sure their customers go home immediately.
“But if we have an EHP in the corner and the operator points to them and tells everyone EH is closing them down, then potentially there could be a problem. That is worst-case scenario. I am hopeful that it is self-enforcing. I think we may get the odd occasion where the small village bar is having a regular lock-in, some places might think they are off the radar and choose to flout it.”
Further guidance from Government on enforcement will follow, and CIEH will keep members fully updated.