Last reviewed 5 August 2021

The Government has updated its guidance for businesses to carry out their activities safely as restrictions continue to ease. 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 this sector, giving practical suggestions for workplace safety and other sources for help, advice and support.

Working Safely during Coronavirus: Guidance for People who Work in or Run Restaurants, Pubs, Bars, Nightclubs and Takeaway Services has been published by the Government to advise on how to make the workplace coronavirus-safe. 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.

There are six key steps to protect employers, staff, contractors and customers.

  1. Carry out a risk assessment and review regularly.

  2. Provide adequate ventilation.

  3. Clean more often.

  4. Turn away people with Covid-19 symptoms.

  5. Enable people to check in at the venue even though this is no longer a legal requirement.

  6. Communicate and train.

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. This covers food safety, health and safety and any measures specific to reduce the risk of Covid-19.

It is important that employers consider the mental health and wellbeing aspects of the coronavirus pandemic as part of their risk assessment for themselves and employees. There is evidence of a rise in stress and anxiety about the risks of infection and the impact of lives. It is also stressful for people if they are faced with vaccination hesitancy or Covid conspiracy theories. It remains imperative that staff and customers feel safe and secure and, to do this, the risk of Covid-19 must be reduced to the lowest reasonable level and your control measures communicated to staff.

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.

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 health and safety risk assessment that includes the risk from Covid-19 (coronavirus risk assessment). 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 and adjustments that are needed for people with disabilities.

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 way of spreading Covid-19 is through close contact with an infected person. When someone with Covid-19 breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes, they release particles (droplets and aerosols) containing the virus and these particles can be breathed in by another person. Surfaces and belongings can also be contaminated when people who are infected cough or sneeze near them or if they touch them.

Control measures

To carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, consider the different ways the virus can spread and put in place measures to reduce the risk of each of these different ways. This guidance suggests ways to reduce the risk of each of the different ways the virus can spread. You may also identify other measures to reduce risk when carrying out your risk assessment. Some of the measures may help reduce the risk of more than one of the different ways the virus can spread.

To reduce the risk of the virus spreading through aerosols, consider:

  • providing adequate ventilation

  • identifying any poorly ventilated spaces and taking steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas

  • encouraging use of outside space where practical and identify any areas of congestion in your venue and considering if any reasonable steps could be taken to avoid this.

To reduce the risk of the virus spreading through droplets, consider:

  • putting in place measures to reduce contact between people, particularly between customers and workers

  • reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using “fixed teams or partnering” (so each person works with only a few others) 

  • using screens or barriers to separate people from each other, or using back-to-back or side-to-side working, instead of face-to-face

  • encouraging the use of face coverings by workers or customers in enclosed and crowded spaces.

To reduce the risk of the virus spreading through contaminated surfaces, consider:

  • advising customers and workers to wash their hands or use hand sanitiser frequently

  • maintaining regular cleaning of surfaces, particularly surfaces that people touch regularly. 

You should also make sure that workers and customers who feel unwell stay at home and do not attend the venue. By law, businesses must not allow a self-isolating worker to come to work (although this will change in some circumstances from 16 August 2021). 

For buildings that have been unoccupied for a period during any lockdowns consider other hazards such as from legionella or pests.

Review the measures in place regularly to ensure they are still working or if there are changes in the workplace that could lead to new risks.

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.

Ventilation

Ensure there is a supply of fresh air to indoor spaces where there are people present. This can be natural ventilation through opening windows, doors and vents, mechanical ventilation using fans and ducts, or a combination of both. Identify any poorly ventilated spaces in the premises and take steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas. In some places, a carbon dioxide monitor can help identify if the space is poorly ventilated.

Good ventilation brings fresh or cleaned air into indoor spaces. The more fresh air that is brought inside, the more diluted any airborne virus will become. In poorly ventilated spaces, residual virus can remain in the air after an infected person has left and increase the risk of Covid-19 spreading.

Maximise the supply of fresh air by having:

  • fully or partially opening windows, air vents and doors to improve natural ventilation

  • mechanical ventilation, that maximises fresh air and minimises air recirculation

  • measures in place to improve fresh air flow in poorly ventilated spaces.

If poor ventilation cannot be improved, it may be safer to restrict the time spent in these areas and the number of people that access these spaces or stop using them. The use of outside spaces where practical is by far the best option.

Cleaning

It is especially important to clean surfaces that people touch a lot. Staff and customers must clean their hands frequently and the use of hand sanitisers is recommended. 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 accessible 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.

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

People with Covid symptoms

Do not allow people showing symptoms of Covid-19 into the business. Staff members or customers should self-isolate if they or someone in their household has a persistent cough, a high temperature or has lost their sense of taste or smell. They must also self-isolate if they or a close contact has had a positive Covid-19 result, or if they have been told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace. If you know that a worker is self-isolating, you must not allow them to come to work. It’s an offence to do this. However, the rules about self-isolation are changing and it is important to check the guidance regularly.

Checking in

Hospitality venues are encouraged to display an official NHS QR code poster. Although it is not legally required to do so, this will support NHS Test and Trace to contact those who may have been exposed to Covid-19. An NHS QR code poster can be generated online to enable individuals to check in using the NHS Covid-19 app. Customers do not need to check in but if a QR code check-in system is used, there should also be a system in place to record contact details for people who want to check in but do not have the app.

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 consider 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.

Communication and Training

Communicate with the staff, contractors and visitors to explain the safety measures that are in place and review them regularly to confirm effectiveness.

The six points in the Government guidance (listed above) are the priority actions to make a food business safer during the ongoing coronavirus situation as restrictions are eased but the infection is still active. There are some further safety practices listed below.

Practical steps to minimise risk

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 working. 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.

  • Decide on a policy about face coverings: some people feel safer wearing them and it is still encouraged in busy enclosed areas. Putting customer safety first can be a gain for attracting business and will also help to make staff feel safer.

  • Continue to be vigilant regarding 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.

  • With the increased pressure on ventilation systems there should be a regular cleaning and maintenance programme in place.

  • Where customers will be entering the business, enable social distancing. This remains a useful measure to mitigate the risk of Covid-19. Calculate the maximum number of customers that can reasonably follow the social distancing guidelines (2m or 1m with risk mitigation). It is important to consider other pinch points such as queues.

  • Ensure that clear guidance on “house rules” for social distancing and face coverings 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.

  • If bookings are taken it is a good idea to tell people when they book what the house rules are so that they can be prepared.

  • 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.

  • Manage outside queues to ensure they do not cause a risk to individuals, other businesses or additional security risks, eg 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).

  • 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.

Workplace testing

Regular testing  could help identify asymptomatic cases of Covid-19 in the workplace. Where testing on-site is provided it is essential that workplace testing is carried out in a safe manner and in an appropriate setting.

As previously, anyone with coronavirus 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 is more at risk because of the high number of young workers who may not yet be fully vaccinated. There are also widespread staffing concerns across the industry and therefore staff are working under considerable pressure.

In Cornwall, after the May half term and the G7 conference, many hospitality businesses had to close because of a significant rise in cases. It is therefore essential to continue to be careful and cautious and to recognise that the virus is still active in the UK.

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.

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