At Warrington Borough Council a joint environmental and public health team was quickly set up to help businesses to adopt COVID-19-secure working practices and to deal with any outbreaks.
The environmental health and trading standards teams at Warrington Borough Council have worked side-by-side with public health colleagues throughout the pandemic.
Regular meetings and joint working has helped to manage outbreaks, as well as providing businesses with the guidance and support they need.
‘We set up joint environmental and public health team’
The way regulatory services are structured at Warrington Borough Council when the pandemic struck was fairly unusual. Environmental health and trading standards were sitting in the same directorate as public health. It meant they naturally had a close working relationship – something that the council used to its full advantage as it responded to coronavirus.
A joint environmental and public health team was quickly set up to help businesses to adopt COVID-19 secure working practices and to deal with any outbreaks.
The 10-strong team worked together to analyse the data on who was testing positive, identifying where clusters could be traced back to workplaces or hospitality businesses. Twice weekly meetings were chaired by Head of Public Protection and Prevention Dave Watson, who leads the trading standards and environmental health teams.
Environmental health officers are used to dealing with outbreaks in their day jobs so their skill set complemented public health colleagues. It enabled the teams to do some excellent joint working on infection control.
Helping businesses with outbreaks
The joint outbreak team has worked with around 40 large businesses and hundreds of smaller operators over the course of the pandemic, providing guidance and support to minimise the spread of the virus.
Mr Watson continued: “It has been really proactive. We’ve looked closely at who is testing positive to try to find any links. We have then provided support to businesses to stem the spread of the virus and to support businesses to continue to operate safely.
“Where practical we have advised them on changing working methods. For example, there was an outbreak at a contact centre so we worked with them to encourage more home working and to carry out enhanced testing.
“In other cases the spread of the virus was more to do with what was happening outside of work – car sharing to work or staff socialising together outside of work. We were able to work with key businesses to help them to set up processes to reduce the potential for work placed transmission.”
Compliance from businesses ‘good’
As a unitary authority, Warrington also has responsibility for trading standards and members of that team were instrumental in helping local businesses to adapt and comply with restrictions.
A dedicated email address to report any issues was established and COVID-19 support officers were also deployed. The support officers were split into two teams – one focussed on business support and another on public information.
Mr Watson said: “They were the eyes and ears on the ground, passing on information to officers as well as providing direct support and reassurance to people.
“We did see some businesses attempting to remain open when they shouldn’t and others attempting to repurpose as essential businesses. Trading standards officers, working closely with the police, were able to use their skills to engage with and educate businesses on what they needed to do to comply. Thanks to this work we have only had to issue 11 fixed penalty notices for non-compliance during the pandemic.”
The close working relationship also meant that Mr Watson and his team have been at the heart of decision-making throughout the pandemic, with representation on the council’s corporate group led by the chief executive, the local resilience forum and the joint health protection and outbreak boards. The team also worked closely with the government and the LGA throughout the pandemic on compliance and enforcement.
Mr Watson said the role of other members of his team needed to be recognised too. He said: “We needed to implement our own business continuity plans at the same time as responding to the pandemic. This required a whole team approach in order to remain resilient. With people spending more time at home we saw a massive increase in noise and nuisance complaints.
“We also needed to adapt our policies to make it easier for businesses to use outdoor space and for taxi drivers to continue to operate. We were fortunate that we had a common regulatory model in place, including environmental health, trading standards, licensing, environmental crime and planning enforcement, which helped us to adapt and flex.
“Officers from across regulatory services continue to play a key role in the pandemic. While we have now moved out of the same directorate as public health to focus on recovery, the relationships remain as strong as ever.
Thara Raj, Warrington’s Director of Public Health, said the support provided by Mr Watson’s team has been invaluable. “We see our public protection colleagues as being central to the delivery of our health and wellbeing plans. We have recently integrated private sector housing with public protection to further build on the successful model and to help us to adopt an even stronger health prevention role moving forward.
“Clearly, there is some uncertainty over the Omicron variant and coronavirus has not gone away, but the team will continue to work together to support the local people and businesses.”
Head of Public Protection and Prevention
Warrington Borough Council