Last reviewed 9 April 2021

The Government has updated its guidance for businesses to carry out their activities safely as step 2 of the road map out of lockdown for England commences on April 12. The aim is to provide employees, customers and others, such as contractors and delivery drivers, an environment safe and secure from the risk of Covid-19. 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.

Working Safety during Coronavirus: Guidance for People who Work in or Run Restaurants, Pubs, Bars, Cafes or Takeaways has been published by the Government to advise on how to make the workplace secure. Although the specific requirements apply to England — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own guidance — there is much that can be used across all jurisdictions.

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 some of the Covid-19 regulations and will therefore be checking that there is legal compliance in all areas, this includes food safety (including HACCP) and health and safety such as first aid provision. Non-compliance is likely to lead to advisory improvement notices, but serious breaches could result in formal actions. All Covid-secure measures should continue even if employees or customers have recently tested negative or had the vaccine.

The Government roadmap also states that employers must consider the mental health and wellbeing aspects of Covid-19 as part of their risk assessment for themselves and employees.

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.

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 new guidance also makes a specific requirement to risk assess the mental health and wellbeing effects of Covid-19.

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

  • any customer with coronavirus symptoms must be turned away and any employee who has symptoms must be excluded from the workplace

  • ensure frequent and effective handwashing and surface cleaning and disinfecting

  • always apply social distancing where possible — 2m or 1m+ with mitigating actions even if people are fully vaccinated or have recently tested negative

  • 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 secure 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

Make sure all staff, visitors and customers wear face coverings that cover the nose and mouth as required by law, if not exempt. Customers may remove face coverings while seated and eating or drinking.

The Government has identified seven priority actions for food businesses to keep employees and customers safe.

  1. Complete a Covid-19 risk assessment.

  2. Clean more often.

  3. Social distancing must still be observed

  4. Increase ventilation.

  5. Take part in NHS Test and Trace.

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

  7. Consider the mental health and wellbeing effects of Covid-19.

The opening up of food businesses is being supported by NHS Test and Trace. To assist this service, businesses must ask every member of each customer group use the NHS Test and Trace App or 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. If a data request is made by NHS Test and Trace the business must comply with the demand. Similarly, a record must be kept 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; Test and Trace is designed in line with data protection legislation, and further guidance can be found on the Government website. It is essential that all businesses ensure data security and comply with all data protection regulations, specifically GDPR.

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. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has identified a risk from legionella if a business has been closed and, therefore, before re-opening, legionella risk assessments and controls must be actioned.

Check for any signs of pests as there have been reports of a significant increase in rats and mice in some places and at this time of year rodents will be nesting and breeding.

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.

Following the move to Step 2, outdoor areas at hospitality venues can reopen to serve customers in groups of up to 6 people or 2 households. These venues may allow customers to use toilets, baby changing rooms or breast-feeding rooms located inside.

Some venues may wish to erect outdoor shelters. To be considered “outdoor”, shelters, marquees and other structures can have a roof but need to have at least 50% of the area of their walls open at all times while in use.

Businesses should not intentionally facilitate gatherings between a greater number of people than is permitted; and should take steps to ensure customer compliance with the rules on social contact. Under these rules, outdoor gatherings are limited to 6 people or 2 households (a support bubble counts as a single household).

At any premises serving alcohol, customers will be required to order, be served and eat/drink while seated (even if no alcohol is ordered). If a hospitality venue does not serve alcohol, then customers will be able to order and collect food and drink from a counter but must consume food and drink while seated at a table.

From Step 2, hospitality venues will also be allowed to provide takeaway alcohol. Takeaway food and drink (including alcohol) must not be consumed on the premises or adjacent to the premises.

To help compliance with new requirements in the hospitality sector the following steps could include:

  1. Informing customers of guidance through signage or notices at the point of booking or on arrival.

  2. Ensuring staff are familiar with the guidance, and if any local restrictions are in place.

  3. Asking customers for verbal confirmation of the number of people in their party at the point of arrival.

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.

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

  • Provide accesible hand cleansing stations for customers: a handwash basin with soap (if possible) and hand sanitiser with signage to promote hand hygiene. Paper towels should ideally be provided at the cleaning station (with a bin).

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

  • Increase frequency of surface cleaning, ensuring disinfectants/sanitisers are effective against bacteria and viruses.

  • 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 them to ensure social distancing.

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

  • Provide clear guidance on social distancing and hygiene to people on arrival, for example, signage, visual aids and before arrival, such as by phone, on the website or by email. Use markers on the ground to regulate queues.

  • Be clear and confident in communicating rules to workers and customers as this helps people feel secure. Develop employee skills to give them the confidence to challenge non-compliance without conflict. Ensure communication is clear for all including people for whom English is not the first language and for deaf and blind customers.

  • Use a one-way system or continuous forward flow and separate entrance/exits. These must be clearly marked with signage. Keep staff in separate areas if possible such as: 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 and minimise contact with all external people including delivery drivers (both incoming stock and outgoing meals).

  • Work with the local authority or landlord to take into account the impact of processes, including queues, on public spaces such as high streets and public car parks.

  • Work with neighbouring businesses and local authorities to provide additional parking or facilities such as bike-racks, where possible, to help customers avoid using public transport.

  • Reduce the need for customers to queue, but where this is unavoidable, using outside spaces for queueing where available and safe. For example, using some car parks and existing outdoor services areas, excluding disabled car parking bays.

  • Manage outside queues to ensure they do not cause a risk to individuals, other businesses or additional security risks, for example by introducing queuing systems, having staff direct customers and protecting queues from traffic by routing them behind permanent physical structures such as street furniture, bike racks, bollards or putting up barriers.

  • Encourage phone/email/app orders and ask people to wait in their cars if possible and 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). At any premises serving alcohol, customers will be required to order, be served and eat/drink while seated.

  • Use Perspex screens at order and payment points to reduce contact surfaces. Contactless payment should be used where possible, maintaining the social distancing requirements and for cash payments use an open cash box — wash and disinfect cash as it is removed. Provide single-use disposable covers for chip and PIN to prevent hand contamination of machine.

  • Provide single use disposables where possible, eg condiments and cutlery with extra capacity for waste, ie paper towels and other disposable items.

  • Schedule extra deep cleans and increase maintenance cleaning — paying particular attention to pest control and the risk of legionella in water supplies prior to re-opening.

Workplace testing

Employers can now order rapid lateral flow tests for the workplace, to test employees with no coronavirus symptoms, if:

  • the business is registered in England

  • it employs 10 people or more (for home testing option)

  • employees cannot work from home.

To be eligible for twice-a-week free tests for employees until the end of June, businesses must register their interest by midnight on 12 April 2021. After that time tests will still be available from private providers and community test centres.

As before, anyone with symptoms can get a free NHS test.

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

There have been many changes but the Government this time is aiming for a permanent easing of lockdown. This means it is imperative that all possible measures are taken to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

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.