Rushmoor: 'We looked after our unsung heroes - our food businesses'

The environmental health team at Rushmoor Borough Council made it their priority to support local shop owners and kept them up to date with the ever changing guidance and went the extra mile delivering lateral flow tests.

The environmental health team at Rushmoor Borough Council in Hampshire has made it a priority to support local shop owners – and food outlets in particular.

As well as helping them keep up-to-date with the ever-changing guidance and rules, the team has gone that extra mile, delivering lateral flow tests to businesses and even convincing one shop manager to get vaccinated.

Keeping a visible presence on the high streets

Council Environmental Health Manager Colin Alborough describes food shops as the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.

They have never closed. In the first lockdown when everything shut down, they stayed open to ensure people could get the food they needed. We took the decision that we wanted to be there to support and help them.

As a result, Mr Alborough and his team of four environmental health staff have been a visible presence on the high streets and in the two main towns Aldershot and Farnborough throughout the pandemic, calling in to shops to provide support.

“We have provided them with signage and advice about how to make their shops as safe as possible for themselves and their shoppers. We started straight away and have continued ever since.

“We have been back out recently following the announcement of the Omicron variant, passing out new posters about face coverings and talking to the shopkeepers. They are concerned about the abuse they may receive for trying to enforce the rules – and we know from published data that attacks on retail staff have gone up.

“So we have supported them with joint patrols with the police. We have also given some basic advice on of how to initiate these conversations and suggested that rather than confront shoppers they may be best to initiate a conversation by asking if they normally wear a mask or not.”

We provided a ‘hands-on’ approach

Mr Alborough said this is where the personal, hands-on approach that district councils can provide makes a “real difference”. “We have been in the towns and shopping centres making ourselves visible and making personal interventions. It helps to develop a personal relationship with the businesses.

“The big businesses understood what was needed. They have experts who can help them understand the rules and regulations, but the smaller businesses do not.”

An example of this is the support the team has provided to Nepalese shop owners – around 10 per cent of the local community is of Nepalese origin.

Mr Alborough said: “There are a lot of shops run by members of that community. We translated the government guidance and information into Nepalese. In fact, those shops became key sources of information for that community, particularly when the regulations were changing quickly. Locally, we moved quickly up through the tiers last autumn.

“We have also worked with our county council colleagues in trading standards and other district council environmental health teams to ensure consistent standards have been applied

“For example, when is a betting shop, a casino – and is it retail or hospitality? We have always tried to be consistent across the county – it is not fair if one business in one town is allowed to open or operate under a different set of rules from another.”

‘We even convinced a shop owner to get vaccinated’ 

The personal support to businesses can be seen in other ways. In early 2021 when public health teams were given supplies of lateral flow tests before they became publicly available, it was the environmental health team that went out to distribute them to businesses in Rushmoor.

In a joint project with the county council, testing kits were handed out to around 600 businesses in the borough, as cases rose again.

The support was widely welcomed by businesses. Pete Howell, the senior barman at the Victoria Pub in Aldershot, said it was a “great initiative”. “We have lots of staff who work here and this support for twice weekly testing helped us all to feel safer for our colleagues and our customers.

Meanwhile, Aimee Matheson, who manages a shop in Aldershot, added the kits helped staff and volunteers “feel happier” at work: “it gave us the reassurance we needed.”

Businesses have been supported in other ways too. Mr Alborough said: “Just recently I was in a kebab shop and talking to the owner. He had just got back from Afghanistan. His wife and child were still there. He had not been vaccinated – it had not been a priority understandably with what was happening back in Afghanistan.

So I helped him book his first jab there and then. That meant a lot – to be able to help someone in that position.

“Our approach has been to support businesses where we can. It seems to have worked - we have had to do very little enforcement. Just two fixed penalty notices were issued and that was to two businesses who were just refusing to cooperate. The relationships we have built have been vital during the pandemic. The team can be proud of the role we have played locally and with the growing uncertainty with what the future may bring with the rise of the Omicron variant and Plan B, the team is ready to respond.”

Contact details

Colin Alborough
Environmental Health Manager
Rushmoor Borough Council