Last reviewed 13 November 2020

The Government has issued guidance for employers to enable food businesses to carry out their activities while keeping employees and others, such as customers, safe. Louise Dawkes considers the specific guidance for restaurants, bars and cafés, giving practical suggestions for workplace safety and other sources for help, advice and support. From 5 November 2020 changes have been made to trading conditions for the hospitality industry.

National restrictions, from 5 November

The current lockdown in England has imposed the following rules in this sector.

  • Any business selling food and drink (including alcohol) must close, but can sell food and non-alcoholic drinks through takeaway, click-and-collect, drive through or delivery.

  • Businesses can only sell alcohol through click-and-collect, drive through and delivery to customers who order it in advance via phone, internet, mobile app or post.

  • Businesses should ensure that customers who collect pre-ordered food or drink do not enter the premises to collect their orders.

  • Where possible, businesses should take payment prior to collection of an order to limit contact between customers and staff.

  • Businesses may serve food and non-alcoholic drinks to customers to take away in the premises between 5am and 10pm.

Employers are expected to respond to any advice or notices issued by enforcing authorities rapidly and are required to do so within any timescales. The vast majority of employers are being responsible by working with the Government and their sector bodies to protect their workers and the public. However, inspectors are carrying out compliance checks nationwide to ensure that employers are taking the necessary steps.

Concerns can be raised with the Health and Safety Executive by: telephone: 0300 790 6787 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am to 5pm) or online via the working safely enquiry form.

Employer responsibilities

An employer must protect the health, safety and wellbeing of workers as well as others who are affected by the business such as customers, delivery personnel, enforcement officers, etc.

It is important to remember that health and safety and food safety laws and regulations are still in place and the Covid-19 regulations are in addition to these. The local authority is responsible for enforcing the Covid-19 regulations and will therefore be checking that there is legal compliance in all areas. Non-compliance is likely to lead to advisory improvement notices, but serious breaches could result in formal actions.

Risk assessment

The first step is to carry out a coronavirus risk assessment; this is the same as normal risk assessments but using guidelines to cover the specifics of this novel infection. The risk assessment will identify measures to reduce the risk of infection to the lowest reasonably practicable level.

Risk assessments must be made in conjunction with workers and unions where appropriate and cover all people who will be affected. It is worth noting that there are high levels of anxiety about returning to work and employers must therefore be mindful of this when discussing risk assessments with workers.

The risk assessment does not need to create extensive or complex documentation and if there are fewer than five workers in the organisation or you are self-employed it does not need to be recorded. It is, however, beneficial to keep records and for businesses with more than five workers this is a legal requirement — even if not all five will be on duty at the same time

The main provisions for working safely and securely in the pandemic are well documented, but to summarise:

  • ensure any workers or customers who feel unwell stay at home and do not come into the premises

  • ensure frequent and effective handwashing and surface cleaning and disinfecting

  • always apply social distancing where possible — 2m or 1m+ with mitigating actions

  • where social distancing cannot be achieved consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate and, if so, use other mitigating measures to reduce risk

  • ensure workers understand the need to report signs and symptoms of Covid-19 in themselves and household members and the need to self-isolate where necessary

  • personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last resort for managing the risk of Covid-19 in a food business — there are specific guidelines about appropriate and effective use.

Ideally use signage, markers, and posters to support measures — these are available from the local authority or Health and Safety Executive. Covid-19 is transmitted person-to-person either directly or indirectly and is not transmitted in food. The mitigating measures reduce the risk of person-to-person infection and sit alongside food safety controls already in place to control food hazards.

It is recommended that all businesses display a notification of the steps taken to ensure safety and security in a prominent place. The “5 steps to safer working together” notice is available for download from GOV.UK.

Keeping customers, visitors and staff safe

The Government has identified seven priority actions for businesses, as follows.

  1. Complete a Covid-19 risk assessment.

  2. Clean more often.

  3. Make sure your customers wear face coverings if required to do so by law, if not exempt.

  4. Make sure everyone is social distancing.

  5. Increase ventilation.

  6. Take part in NHS Test and Trace.

  7. Send people with coronavirus symptoms home (both staff and customers).

The opening up of food businesses is being supported by NHS Test and Trace. To assist this service, businesses must ask one member of every customer group to provide their contact details and keep a temporary record of customers and visitors for 21 days, in a way that is manageable for the business, and assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for that data if needed. Similarly, you must keep a record of all staff contact details and shift times and days. This could help contain clusters or outbreaks. Many businesses such as restaurants that take bookings, have systems for recording their customers and visitors, but cafés and pubs will need to implement this; Track and Trace is designed in line with data protection legislation, and further guidance can be found on the Government website.

Whether indoor or outdoor people should not meet in groups of larger than six. (This limit does not apply to a single household group or support bubble.)

At the moment venues are not allowed any live performances in front of a live audience. All venues must also take steps to avoid people needing to shout at each other, which includes playing music at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult. This is to reduce the potential for aerosol transmission.

Practical steps to minimise risk and comply with regulations

As the Government guidance explains, various practical measures can be effectively introduced at minimal cost. During the risk assessment process, the workers can be encouraged to discuss these to ensure co-operation and inclusion in the safe return to work. Many people are keen to get back to work but are understandably nervous about the risk to themselves and their families. This must not be underestimated.

Before opening the food business for trading, a deep clean and maintenance check should be carried out. See our feature Deep cleaning the workplace.

Check for any signs of pests as there have been reports of a significant increase in rats and mice in some places.

Ventilation is essential in a food business but is also useful for reducing the risk of Covid-19 — deep-clean ventilation systems and maximise the flow of fresh air.

For all food businesses where customers will be entering the business premises, calculate the maximum number of customers that can reasonably follow social distancing guidelines (2m or 1m with risk mitigation). It is important to identify how changes, such as queues will impact on the outdoor areas and neighbouring businesses. Ensure that clear guidance on ‘”house rules”’ for social distancing are displayed prominently. It will be necessary to train workers to ensure they are confident and competent to deal with customers queries and concerns and to challenge breaches of social distancing. Toilet areas must also be risk assessed with mitigating actions to reduce the risk of infection transmission.

See the feature How to make your toilet facilities coronavirus-safe.

The following are examples of measures and mitigating actions that a food business can use to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission, in no particular order:

  • update workers on handwashing and hand hygiene and encourage them to be ambassadors for good hygiene

  • provide hand cleansing stations for customers: a handwash basin with soap (if possible) and hand sanitiser

  • increase frequency of surface cleaning, ensuring disinfectants are effective against bacteria and viruses

  • provide hand conditioner for staff as increased use of hand sanitiser and handwashing can cause dry skin and can lead to eczema or dermatitis

  • for handwashing, paper towels should ideally be provided (with a bin)

  • limit numbers in toilets areas, ensure regular and thorough cleaning and disinfecting and place hand sanitiser close to entrance/exit of toilets

  • ensure customers with children supervise social distancing

  • create zones using screens or barriers (eg a table) to achieve social distance

  • use posters, signage, and markers on the ground, regulate queues and limit numbers allowed in the business to collect food

  • be clear and confident in communicating rules to workers and customers as this helps people feel secure

  • use a one-way system or continuous forward flow and separate entrance/exits

  • encourage phone/email/app orders and ask people to wait in their cars if possible

  • stagger food collections

  • laminate menus to provide a cleansable surface, or use single use menus

  • keep menus simple and structure prices to reduce the need to give change if cash sales are essential, eg £1.99 requires 1p change, £2.00 reduces need for an interaction

  • implement table service to encourage people to stay at their table, eliminate self-service (eg cutlery and condiments)

  • use Perspex screens at order and payment points to reduce contact surfaces

  • use an open cash box for cash deposits and wash and disinfect cash as it is removed

  • use contactless payment where possible, maintaining the social distancing requirements

  • for chip and PIN provide single-use disposable covers to prevent hand contamination of machine

  • use single use disposables where possible, eg condiments and cutlery

  • provide extra capacity for waste, ie paper towels and other disposable items

  • keep staff in separate areas: dishwash/front of house/kitchen

  • limit access to walk-in areas such as chiller/fridge/freezer/storeroom to certain staff

  • where working together, if 2m distance cannot be achieved, stand side-by-side or back-to-back rather than face-on

  • minimise contact with all external people including delivery drivers (both incoming stock and outgoing meals)

  • schedule regular deep cleans and increase maintenance cleaning.

Information and support

There is much advice available to help and support. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) at www.food.gov.uk has detailed information for food businesses. The FSA advises all food businesses which are reopening or have made changes to how they work to review and, where necessary, update their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures or system (such as Safer food, better business (SFBB) packs). The FSA also provides additional opening and closing checklists for this time that may be a useful resource.

Check that any changes made to procedures or workplace layouts have not introduced any additional, unexpected hazards. Before opening:

  • document any changes made

  • document the start-up checks undertaken

  • inform the local food authority when restarting the food business, and of any changes to registerable activities; this includes the introduction of a new delivery or takeaway service.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) at www.cieh.org produced a useful video on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace.

Conclusion

The hospitality industry has been affected beyond measure by this crisis and it is an essential part of returning to the new normal that food businesses trade again. This must be done in a way that protects the health, safety and wellbeing of workers and customers. It is achievable, and there is plenty of support available — but it will require thought and determination.

Mitigating actions to reduce risk will be most effective if people understand what they need to do to maintain safety. It is therefore important for all food businesses to communicate clearly what is expected of customer behaviour. Customers need to know that services will not be provided if rules are not followed and that failure to comply could result in action by police or local authority officers.

The Government's guidance for people who work in or run food businesses can be found at GOV.UK.