The approach to working with businesses and workplaces within the City during the pandemic has been multifaceted. The ability of businesses and workplaces to function has been severely affected by the lockdown and the restrictions placed upon us all and it has been vital that our approach has understood and been empathetic to the unprecedented pressures placed upon workplaces during this time. It has been important to firstly engage and support businesses to fulfil their legal responsibility, but also to listen, facilitate and offer guidance to ensure that they operate safely both for employees and customers.
Engagement has been driven by a number of teams within the Council including Public Health, Regulatory Services, Business Support and Economic Development, and has used existing partnerships and relationships as well as developing new ones.
Activity can be divided into the following areas:
- Proactive support and engagement
- Sharing good practice and guidance
- Outbreak management
Proactive support and engagement
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and consequently, guidance, legislation and practice have evolved at a fast pace. No one was an expert in COVID-19 before March 2020, and everyone involved has learned as the pandemic has progressed. As a result of this, the ethos of our proactive support and engagement with business has been based upon the need to work together with workplaces, share lessons learned and good practice.
Public Health and the Council as a whole, have worked with businesses in a number of ways.
1. Community COVID-19 Advisors and Compliance Officers
A team of COVID-19 advisors and compliance officers who were recruited to engage with public-facing businesses. The role of the advisors was to provide reassurance to communities and encourage them to follow the guidance but also support businesses in areas where the public may not be following the rules, e.g. not wearing face masks, poor social distancing. The team prioritised visiting local areas with high infection rates and places where there had been reports of non-compliance with COVID-19 secure guidance, either by the business or by members of the public using that business. By providing a visible presence in areas where there were reported problems, the team was able to provide reassurance to the business and communities and also offer a counter-narrative to change attitudes and encourage compliance.
Taken from: Community COVID-19 Advisor
A lot of people were confrontational to begin with but the drip feeding of us going round on a daily and weekly basis has certainly helped the public.
The public in general are happy to see us out and about as well.
They feel confident when they see us doing our job, so they are happy to go into those places shopping, knowing that we are visible for that three hours we are there.
The good comments definitely outweigh the bad ones, whereas back in September it was the other way around.
2. Proactive preventative projects
Public health and regulatory services undertook a number of proactive projects aimed at addressing emerging issues with businesses during the pandemic. These focused on high-risk sectors such as warehousing, licensed premises and shared accommodation (HMOs) and businesses where common problems were arising. The case studies below highlight how the projects worked and how the approach was tailored to different areas.
A joint investigation with PHE into a COVID-19 variant of concern highlighted the need for additional information for private sector landlords and their tenants. Through joint working with colleagues in Public Health and Regulatory Services, 2500 private sector landlords received an emailed letter explaining best practice for COVID-19 management in shared accommodation. They also received a poster with key messaging and a letter they could use to communicate with each of their tenants.
The investigation of COVID-19 outbreaks in two Coventry pharmacies in Autumn 2020 found recurring issues including inadequate risk assessments and poor COVID-19 management particularly with regard to staff welfare areas, cleaning, and sharing of staff between branches. Whilst the pharmacies had conducted risk assessments, these were found to be generic omitting to consider key issues.
Conscious that pharmacies are extremely busy, the best way to contact, support and advise them was carefully considered. The team engaged with Coventry’s Local Pharmaceutical Committee (LPC) who were identified as a key stakeholder – they disseminated a letter and supplementary guidance on our behalf introducing the project to all their members.
Officers then contacted independent pharmacists who were asked to provide their Covid 19 risk assessments. These were assessed to determine if they were site specific and suitable and sufficient. Advice on how the assessments could be improved and thereby improve Covid management was provided. Where deemed necessary site visits were also undertaken.
27 community pharmacies were involved resulting in improved risk assessments and COVID-19 management at these sites. Tailored pharmacy specific information was produced, and “lessons learnt” guidance and other COVID-19 relevant business guidance was developed – this is used regularly with all types of workplaces.
The proactive projects helped to strengthen relationships with businesses and means that now many workplaces and businesses proactively approach us for advice. It has also helped to improve relationships with other partners like the Local Pharmaceutical Committee (LPC) and these links have proved beneficial in other areas of work supported by Public Health, for example when setting up vaccination clinics in pharmacies.
3. CSW COVID-19 Secure Business Pledge
The CSW COVID-19 Secure Business Pledge is an initiative launched across the CSW Beacon. The aims of the pledge are to support the implementation of national guidance and legal requirements but also to encourage businesses to go further in their efforts to reduce the risk of transmission. The benefits to businesses of taking part in the scheme is that it will raise the profile of those businesses that are making additional efforts. This should encourage business and customer confidence to return to workplaces/town and village centres and therefore increase turnover for companies.
The pledge is made up of a number of promises:
Our premises – we carry out a regular COVID 19 risk assessment, displayed at our premises and published on our website.
Our staff – we will protect our staff through:
- Adhering to the latest government COVID 19 standards for our sector and educating staff on latest practices.
- Encouraging all staff in the workplace to have regular COVID 19 tests.
- Supporting all staff with the appropriate working patterns and practices that protects the spread of infection alongside their well-being and mental health.
- Having a named COVID lead who takes responsibility for COVID measures in the workplace.
Our customers – we will ensure that customer safety is paramount, through ensuring our premises and procedures are COVID secure and supporting our customers to follow our guidelines rigorously.
Sharing good practice and guidance
The government has produced a wealth of resources to support local authorities with communication and engagement. Guidance for businesses has been long and often complex. For medium sized and small businesses much of the national information has been hard to decipher, interpret and act upon. We recognised that there was a need in Coventry to tailor resources and communications to fit with the business communities that exist in the City.
As with the approach taken in our communities, we have produced a wide range of materials and guidance in both digital and more traditional formats. The content of the guidance documents has evolved with learning/experience and has taken into account feedback from businesses.
One of the first actions we took was to create information pages on our website. There is now a dedicated COVID-19 Secure Workplaces internet page which was specifically developed to disseminate learning and locally produced information:
- Lessons learnt from outbreaks
- Covid 19 risk assessments
- Donning and Doffing of PPE
- Smoking shelters
- Staff welfare facilities
- Hand washing
- Car sharing
- Identification of close contacts
To ensure that all high-risk settings including workplaces were ready to respond to cases and outbreaks, local action cards and step-by-step process maps were created. Posters, signs and leaflets were also designed and handed out to local businesses to use on their premises. Pictorial images were used in multi-cultural areas where English is not always the first language. By breaking down the complex government guidance into easy to understand language and text, it was hoped that regulations would be better understood and adhered to.
Gathering feedback from business
The Council has a number of well-established communication channels with businesses in Coventry. All of these methods were used and built upon during the pandemic to try to ensure we were reaching as many workplaces as possible. This was a joint effort between external and internal partners.
Examples of activities undertaken were:
- Business Webinar - A joint event was run between the Council and the Chamber of Commerce to provide local businesses with the opportunity to speak directly with Public Health and feedback questions and issues directly. The event was attended by the Director of Public Health and senior colleagues at the Chamber. It was filmed and posted for anyone not able to attend.
- Business E-News – Regular articles about COVID-19 have been placed in the electronic newsletter which has a distribution to approx. 2,000 businesses in Coventry. These included updates and reminders about testing, COVID-19 regulations, how to interpret guidance, vaccination, and access to resources.
Our experience of workplace outbreaks throughout the pandemic has found that poor COVID-19 management and the failure of some employers to react quickly enough to positive cases can often lead to transmission through the workforce, detrimentally affecting businesses by reducing available staff, leading to reduced production and in some cases temporary closure of the business.
The outbreak management team has worked collaboratively with workplaces to address COVID-19 management issues, tailor advice and guidance according to circumstance and ultimately help maintain business continuity.
I wanted to further extend my thanks to you and PHE, for the consultative nature in which you’ve supported Encore in refining and improving our ‘working through COVID’ secure H&S measures. It is an ever changing and challenging landscape to navigate, fraught with worry, anxiety….so, having gone about your investigations consultatively; advising and further educating us on where we can make additional improvements, has been invaluable, supportive and much appreciated. Once again, many thanks
Pete Taylor FIRP - Managing Director, www.encorepersonnel.co.uk
Outbreak Case Study: Retail Shop
In January 2021 the team dealt with an outbreak amongst staff at a large essential retailer in Coventry. Numbers of cases were rising, and several complaints were also received from concerned staff members about how the store was being run and the Company’s poor response to the outbreak. Despite being operated by a national chain an initial visit by Test and Trace EHOs found poor COVID-19 management.
Issues identified included:
- Lack of understanding of close contacts and the need to self-isolate staff
- Poor cleaning and confusion about cleaning materials. Areas of the store not being cleaned at all. Some not cleaned frequently enough.
- Lack of COVID-19 controls in office areas with shared equipment including keyboards. There were too many staff and lack of social distancing with no consideration for maximum occupancies.
- Lack of COVID-19 controls in staff welfare areas including poor ventilation, no maximum occupancies, lack of social distancing and poor seating arrangements.
Following this audit, several Incident Management Team meetings (IMT) were held with company representatives where findings were discussed and COVID-19 PCR testing was undertaken by our locally commissioned testing service in order to judge the extent of the problem and prevent further onward transmission.
Despite initial reticence, a positive working relationship developed with the company, all improvements were implemented, and they now approach officers proactively for advice. Their national procedures were also adapted following our advice.
Outbreak Case Study – Office/Call Centre
In Autumn 2020 multiple positive cases amongst staff in a large call centre coincided with complaints received about their COVID-19 management systems. An online IMT meeting was held, and a subsequent COVID-19 management site visit was then undertaken by Test and Trace Environmental Health Officers.
Our key findings were:
- No site-specific COVID-19 risk assessment
- Poor cleaning - key contact points being missed during cleaning
- Poor COVID-19 behaviours including inadequate social distancing – staff were ignoring screening and sitting close together
- Poor understanding amongst site staff about close contacts and the need to self-isolate illustrating poor training and communication.
- Staff in the smoking areas standing together in groups and not observing social distancing. The company had provided benches and tables around the smoking shelter that was encouraging people to sit together.
- The layout of some of the training rooms and the way trainees had been positioned, with compromised social distancing. The workplace had not made best use of available space and spare desks.
- In the canteen tables were too close together, staff were seen queuing close together whilst waiting to be served and more chairs than tables in this room encouraging staff to sit together
Many improvements were identified by officers who then advised and supported the business through these. An already constructive working relationship was strengthened. The business made physical changes including provision of an external marquee to increase welfare space and improved social distancing. They also improved their internal comms and introduced on-site LFT testing.
Key lessons learned from Business Engagement
- A supportive approach encouraging businesses to make informed decisions and act carefully and proportionately, to manage the risks to themselves and others, was arguably more beneficial than punitive methods.
- Provide businesses with the opportunity to feedback and know that their efforts are valued and worthwhile.
- Tailor national resources to suit the demographics within Coventry and provide easy-to-follow advice that can be understood in a range of workplaces.
- We have learned a lot since the COVID-19 response began, and our approach to breaking chains of transmission and protecting the public’s health has evolved significantly. Ensure this learning is passed on and guidance is kept up-to-date.
- Use and build upon existing relationships and partnerships in order to effectively disseminate messages.