Lancaster: COVID-19 safe award helped businesses and reassured public

Lancaster City Council set up a COVID-19 Safe Award for local shops, restaurants and pubs to act as a guide to the public that the businesses were adhering to the local guidance.

Lancaster City Council set up a COVID-19 Safe Award for local shops, restaurants and pubs. It acted as a guide to the public that the businesses were adhering to the local guidance.

Close to 200 businesses signed up with those taking part saying it was a real boost during the difficult times. The council is now looking to build on what it has learnt by setting up a new awards scheme for customers to provide real-time feedback on their experiences.

How the award worked

The COVID-19 Safe Award was set up by Lancaster City Council as the first lockdown began to ease. Businesses were able to apply for a COVID-19 Safe certification. The online application process provided them with advice about what steps needed to be taken, such as one-way routes, the introduction of screens and mask-wearing.

COVID-19 information officers who were on the streets were then able to check if the measures were in place and report back to the council’s COVID-19 Response Team that was set up by the Public Protection Service.

Commercial Protection Manager Stephen Sylvester said: “At the start of the pandemic we were offering businesses free visits from our officers to help advise them about what steps needed to be taken and as things started opening up again we thought the customer assurance scheme would be a great way to engage them, but also to tempt customers back on to the high street.

“Businesses were given a poster that they could put up in the window so customers knew they were taking the right safety procedures and on the posters there were QR codes that customers could provide feedback.

“Our COVID-19 information officers who were out on the streets also kept an eye on premises – just having a look in as they passed the businesses to make sure what they were saying they were doing was being done. The problem with some of these schemes is that they rely on self-certification – we wanted to ensure there was some quality control.”

If the COVID-19 information officers or customers had concerns that was fed back to the COVID-19 Response Team, which included two business compliance officers who were under the supervision of a senior environmental health officer.

Mr Sylvester said: “They were there to follow up both complaints against those who were part of the reassurance scheme and those that were not. We did take enforcement action, but only a handful of times. Most of the time businesses were receptive to making changes – some of it was simply down to not being fully aware of the guidance or in the way they implemented it.

“For example, in some cases, in designing one-way route fire exits became blocked. We worked with the fire service to provide advice about what needed to be done. Throughout the pandemic there has been a lot of guidance and regulations for businesses to absorb . The guidance was complex and changed a lot and because it had been drafted at pace it was not always clear what it meant or how businesses should respond. We were there to help them. We want to see a thriving high street as well as a safe high street.”

Award ‘was a boost for business’

The support was well received. Nearly 200 businesses signed up for the award and it received the backing of Lancaster and District Chamber of Commerce.

Chief Executive Officer Vicky Lofthouse said it had been “a great tool” for business during the pandemic.

It helped to reassure customers and employees, as well as business owners and managers, that everything is being done to make the business as safe as possible.

Tim Tomlinson, from the White Cross Pub which gained a COVID-19 Safe Award, added: “It was the stamp of approval which gave customers the confidence to shop, eat out or go for a drink. It gave a lift to all the accredited business during these difficult times.”

While social distancing and mask-wearing rules are no longer in place, the award is still running and businesses are displaying the posters. “It continues to be a sign that COVID-19 safe practices are being followed, mask-wearing encouraged and people will respect and give people space,” Mr Sylvester added.

The council supported businesses in other ways too, running webinars on the constantly changing guidelines and issues such as how to improve ventilation. The council has also bought 50 CO2 monitors. They have been offered to businesses at a discounted rate or lent out for them to assess ventilation.

Mr Sylverster said: “Ensuring good ventilation is tricky for some businesses. If a venue plays music there may be noise considerations to take into account or, in the winter, whether customers will be too cold.

“One business that used it recently was able to monitor air quality and take small steps early by just opening the windows a little and keeping that air flowing enough.”

Award has inspired new initiative

But the award also has another legacy. The concept of having a certification scheme that uses real-time feedback from customers is now being applied to a new assurance scheme, Lancaster Customer Safe, under the banner Lancaster Eat Safe and Drink Safe.

The idea is to promote businesses that provide good customer service and adhere to the right practices. Businesses taking part will apply and get posters with a QR code that customers can provide instant feedback from.

It is being piloted with around 50 businesses in the coming months and if it works it will be extended and other versions, such as shop safe, sleep safe and Taxi Safe, could be launched.

Mr Sylvester added: “We want people to use it to provide both positive and negative feedback. The problem people face is when they are out and about they may think that was a really great meal or that was awful service, but they never get around to recording that. This will make it easy.

“We will feed it back to business and obviously investigate complaints where appropriate. Early feedback picking up on small problems can help prevent them escalating to something more serious, which is good for us as the regulator but also good for the business.

“We already have the food safety ratings, but like an MOT that is only accurate on the day it is done. The beauty of this is that it can be constantly updated. If we can prove the concept, maybe one day it will be added to the national food hygiene rating scheme to help keep the ratings relevant or even help identify where there has been a change of ownership that hasn’t been recorded.”

Contact details

Stephen Sylvester
Commercial Protection Manager
Lancaster City Council