How Portsmouth's Covid compliance officers are working to keep staff and customers safe
WITHOUT a doubt the Covid-19 pandemic has been a tumultuous time for everyone.
And now, almost a year on from the first effects of the outbreak being felt in the UK, it seems as if some of our new found practices are starting to become instinctive to us.
For Portsmouth businesses trying to navigate their way through uncharted territories - including three national lockdowns, different tier systems and changeable restrictions - the past 10 months have been unlike any other period in recent times.
Not only do they have to keep staff safe from coronavirus, there's also the protection of customers and delivery drivers to consider - all while adhering to whatever the latest government guidelines are.
That's where Portsmouth City Council's Covid business compliance officers - also known as CBCOs - come into the equation.
The team of 10 officers that has been in place since specific government funding of £130,207 was awarded in October, has been tasked with ensuring all businesses within the city are Covid compliant. And they report back on any offenders that could result in fines up thousands of pounds.
But, as the council's regulatory services manager, Richard Lee, explained most businesses - from shops to restaurants and pubs - have been working hard to achieve compliance.
Since October the team has conducted around 3,100 visits - 95 per cent of which were found to be compliant. And only a handful of fixed penalty notices were issues by the council or police as a result.
Mr Lee said: 'What the team found was most businesses were following the guidelines - or in some cases they genuinely thought they were but needed a few things tweaking just because the rules changed several times.
'The officers in most cases were there to provide advice and support on how to become fully compliant and to keep staff and customers safe.
'The team isn't there to fine as many people as possible. Only if a business continues to flout the rules will this happen.'
The team plans daily visits based on businesses that have been flagged up to the council either through its online reporting tool or over the phone - on average visiting around 12 of these a day.
But around another 40 visits are then conducted by patrolling that area.
Before the team was formed in October the council was using resources from its existing regulatory services, with the power to serve prohibition notices (an order to close immediately) only.
'Between March and the end of the summer we served 10 of these notices, which considering the thousands of businesses in Portsmouth is a small proportion,' Mr Lee said.
'There were a few cases of pubs refusing to close during full lockdown.'
As lockdown eased and restaurants and bars were encouraged to reopen in the summer this meant the the enforcement team had new guidelines to follow.
Managing director of The Akash Indian restaurant in Albert Road, in Southsea - Jafor Ahmed - explained how the CBCOs had helped him and his staff.
Jafor said: 'Throughout the pandemic we have kept in contact with the compliance officers. At first it seemed a bit daunting because they are in their uniforms but actually they helped us and told us what we are doing well and it was reassuring.
'One of the officers I liaise with and can turn to her to ask any questions about staying compliant.
'For the whole country it was confusing when we were going in and out of lockdown and into different tiers, but we used the help of the officers as well as information provided by delivery platforms to keep up with all the rules.'
The Akash had to close again during the second and third lockdown but has continued to run as a takeaway business.
'I must say all our staff have been brilliant during the pandemic. They came and and worked even in the early days when it was quite scary not knowing if they were going to come into contact with someone with the virus,' he added.
Now the country is back in a third lockdown with only essential businesses such as food stored and pharmacies open, the CBCOs have conducted a lot of work with local supermarkets to bolster existing safety measures.
Just before Christmas this included providing more hand sanitiser for customers and increasing signs reminding customers to wear masks and social distance.
Portsmouth's CBCOs were sourced from a external security company and they carry out patrols seven days a week.
The highest fixed penalty notice served to a Portsmouth business for breaching Covid compliance so far has been £4,000.
Residents can report concerns via the council's website by searching 'report a Covid breach.'
How local stores have adapted to be Covid compliant
SHOPS across the UK have had to make a slew of changes to ensure they remain Covid compliant.
And butchers shop Astles of Portsmouth, in Copnor Road, is no exception.
One of the owners, Karen Astle, explained how they made their shop - which is currently open as an essential business - safe for staff and customers.
'We introduced a system where we would only allow one person in the shop at a time and would serve another at the door,' she said.
'We have an area on the shop floor that is tapped so customers know where they can stand so we can move around freely. We've also got a Perspex screen on the counter between us and the customer.
'Outside on our pavement we had stickers to show where people should stand to allow for distancing and a hand sanitising machine that we ask people to use before coming in.
'Since the latest lockdown we have now changed this system as a small minority of people were not adhering to the message so now we have a table just inside the shop entrance which has a Perspex screen on it, we have a hand sanitiser station just outside the shop for customers and sanitiser and wipes for us to use and to keep the card machine clean and we serve customers from there.
'We did have a visit from compliance officers and were told that everything we had in place was right and we didn't need to change or add anything.'
Karen thanked customers for their co-operation.
'On the whole the reaction has been very positive and many customers say they feel safe with all the measures we have in place,' she said.
'We have gained new customers who have said they feel much safer shopping in a small shop like ours rather than a supermarket.
'I think the biggest thing is not having customers in the shop in the same way, we have some great relationships with customers who have been coming to us for many years and there's always been a lot of laughs between us, them and other customers so although we still have the laughs its different and has taken some getting used to.'
Tips on how to shop safely from Portsmouth City Council
Wear a face coverings: by law you must wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets unless you are exempt or have a reasonable excuse. A face visor or shield can be worn in addition to a face covering but not instead of one. This is because face visors or shields do not adequately cover your nose and mouth.
Keep hands clean: try to use hand sanitiser when you arrive at and leave shops, this will often be provided at the shop entrance.
Stick to the two metre rule: stay two metres apart from others as much as possible. Use floor marking in shops to help you, follow one-way systems in shops, and leave space if you're queuing.
Don't touch: try not to touch or handle food and other essentials unless you are going to buy them.
Pay by card: use contactless payments if you can. This reduces the need for you and shop assistants to handle cash or a pin number pad.
Plan ahead: decide what you need to buy before leaving home to help limit the time you're in a shop. Planning ahead also helps minimise the number of times you need to leave the house. Avoid popping out for single items.
Stay local: Try and use shops that are close to your home rather than travelling to other parts of the city. Using local, independent shops for essentials where you can is a great way to support your area.
Be kind and help others: Remember to be considerate of other shoppers and people working in shops - they are doing essential work for the whole community. If you can, offer to shop for vulnerable neighbours, friends or family members when you're going out so that they can stay at home.
Get help if you need it: if you're vulnerable, shielding or self-isolating and need help with getting food or other essentials and don't have family, friends or neighbours who can help, visit the Hive Portsmouth website or call the Hive Portsmouth helpline on 023 9261 6709 (9am-5pm, Monday to Friday).