As soon as COVID-19 hit, a pan-Sussex enforcement cell was set up which included the police, Brighton and Hove City Council, the two county councils and the network of district and borough councils.
The division of trading standards and environmental health in two-tier areas created an added layer of complexity when COVID-19 hit as councils were asked to take responsibility for enforcement of rules and regulations against businesses.
But in Sussex the county councils and districts worked closely to ensure consistent standards were applied across the county.
An integrated approach
As soon as COVID-19 hit, a pan-Sussex enforcement cell was set up. It included the police, Brighton and Hove City Council, the two county councils and the network of district and borough councils.
East Sussex County Council Trading Standards Team Manager Richard Strawson said: “We were aware there was a degree of complexity to how enforcement was going to work.
“Police were going to be responsible for individuals and councils for businesses and public spaces. But for the public they would not see it like that – they would expect to report something and for that to be looked at so we wanted to create an integrated system whereby whoever an issue was reported to it would be passed on to the right team.”
The system put in place meant the public could report a concern whether it related to a business or individual to either the police, local district council or county council. It was logged and then passed on to the right partner.
“If the police got a report about a business, they would pass it on to us and vice versa. Across the local authorities, we worked together to set up a protocol for which officers would look at which issues. The district council environmental health officers took the lead for food and hospitality, while council trading standards officers led on tourism and non-food businesses.”
As well as setting up a protocol for that, the councils worked together to ensure consistent standards were applied across the county.
Normally with regulations you have detailed definitions of what is covered and what is not. But with COVID-19, because the guidance had to be put together quickly and because it was changing regularly, there were lots of grey areas.
“In fact, our protocols were updated 18 times in total to adapt to changing requirements.” said Mr Strawson.
“What constituted a food shop or car wash for example? We saw some business open when it was only meant to be essential businesses opening by claiming they sold food.
“We wanted to ensure that businesses were treated fairly and equally so that we didn’t have a situation where one business in one town was allowed to open and then another similar business in the next town wasn’t. We met weekly and discussed how to interpret and enforce the regulations. It meant across the county we had consistency, which I think businesses appreciated.
“It meant enforcement could be kept to a minimum – in East Sussex we only issued around half a dozen fixed penalty notices. I think businesses recognised the seriousness of the situation and were pretty responsible. In the few cases where advice and even fixed penalty notices were blatantly ignored joint efforts by partners could also lead to effective action. In one case police and trading standards were both involved in gathering the evidence to take this to court.”
Richard Parker-Harding, the Head of Environmental Health for Rother and Wealden Councils, added: “I felt we all played to our professional strengths, while supporting each other, when resources were stretched.
“Normal professional boundaries were extended to provide mutual aid, for example the police acting as “investigators” out of office hours, reporting back to trading standards and environmental health the next working day. Conversely trading standards and environmental health provided technical advice to the police whenever required.”
The tough call on closing a beach
The enforcement cell also worked closely with public health colleagues. This was the case during the summer of 2020 when there was concern about crowded beaches – East Sussex is home to Camber Sands, a popular stretch of beach that attracts people from all over the south east.
Mr Strawson said: “It was very popular, people were craving fresh air and the chance to enjoy themselves. But there is only one road into Camber Sands so at the best of times it can get very congested and busy for locals. Aggravating issues included unlicensed events being planned at the beach by businesses outside the county.
“We had the option of using the No 3 Regulations to close the beach and restrict access. We considered it – it was a really difficult call. But in the end, we decided that once you took into account the risks with it being outdoors and the benefit for both mental and physical health we decided not to take action.
“But we were able to offer advice and support to businesses about how to manage the crowds and maintain social distancing. In fact, the overwhelming majority of our work was about supporting businesses not taking enforcement action. At one point I had five trading standards officers working on this full time.
We used the weekly meetings to ensure we gave timely advice. We would monitor trends and react accordingly, communicating with businesses.
“For example, we had a number of cases of hairdressers operating when they shouldn’t at one stage. We took action against some, but also used it as an opportunity to remind businesses of the rules.
“And Before Christmas 2020 we had cases of outlets opening up as they were selling Christmas trees – in the end the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had to look at this and agreed it was allowed. We helped communicate that. We had more than 1,000 requests for help and advice during the pandemic – we worked hard to ensure they were supported all the way through in interpreting the guidance and remaining open safely.”