Council chiefs have set out how they will use new powers to close rule-breaking businesses – but insist they will only do so ‘as a last resort’.
Under the new Health Protection Regulations, all local authorities can impose restrictions on businesses, such as pubs, which flout social distancing and hygiene rules aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19.
Direction notices issued by councils can restrict how a business operates, such as limiting how many customers are permitted, and in extreme cases they can be temporarily closed down.
Staffordshire County Council has now revealed how it intends to implement these new powers, with a five-stage process for issuing directions set to be introduced.
This comes shortly after the outbreak at the Crown and Anchor pub, in Stone, which resulted in 22 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and several days of disruption to the local economy.
Councils can only issue directions when three conditions are met – where there is a ‘serious and imminent threat’ to public health; where a direction is necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus; and where the restrictions are proportionate.
Cabinet members will be asked to approve the process for issuing directions, and delegate authority to implement the powers to chief executive John Henderson, when they meet on Wednesday.
Dr Johnny McMahon, cabinet member for health, care and well-being said: “Everyone has a part to play in halting the spread of Covid-19. While the vast majority of businesses are complying with the guidance, we have been made aware of a number of premises that aren’t following it, and potentially putting the people who use them at risk.
“This paper details how we are stepping up our powers to ensure businesses, premises and events are following the guidance to keep people safe. Any potential closure will be a last resort — we will continue to work with businesses to help them comply with the regulations, but the safety of the public has to come first.”
The county council’s process for issuing directions would see the council first gather evidence, and then send a warning letter to the business concerned, if appropriate.
If the business does not comply with the warning letter, a report would then be prepared and a final decision taken as to whether to issue a direction. This would then have to be reviewed every seven days.
The new powers apply to premises, events, and even open spaces.
Council leaders say that before any decision is taken to issue a direction, they will work with district councils and the police to advise and support businesses on the measures needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Some councils in England and Wales are calling for additional licensing powers, on top of the Health Protection Regulations.
At the moment, councils do not have the power to review a premises’ licence on public health grounds, meaning they are not able to impose conditions on a licence relating to social distancing or hygiene measures.
The Local Government Association says changing this would allow councils to take early enforcement action to prevent outbreaks happening in the first place.
Nesil Caliskan, chairwoman of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board, said: “Some councils are beginning to see isolated cases where the guidelines are not being followed and they are limited in what they can do to stop it.
“It needs to be mandatory for premises to follow this Government safety guidance and councils need the right powers to intervene and take action if necessary.”
The outbreak in Stone last month, which followed reports of overcrowding at the Crown and Anchor, led to the voluntary closure of the pub and the mass testing of around 1,000 people. The pub has not yet been allowed to reopen.
Four other venues in the area also chose to temporarily close as a precaution, although all have since reopened.