Monmouthshire County Council's Public Protection response to the Covid-19 pandemic - April to September 2020 - Scrutiny of the progress report and any implications arising
Officers David Jones, Linda O’Gorman and Gareth Walters presented the report and responded to members’ questions.
Have animal markets now reopened, and was the Council reimbursed for feed during the period when we were caring for cattle?
Yes, we stopped attending the markets early on, out of health and safety concerns for our staff. Gradually, complaints came through, with the number of animals that normally wouldn’t have got through creeping up (not necessarily at Raglan), so Welsh Government was quick to approach us on an all-Wales basis for buyers and sellers to resume attendance. We ensured that proceeds from the sales came to us, and we deducted costs of the time for the officers who looked after the animals.
Since pubs re-opened, the safety and security has differed amongst them, with some not enforcing social distancing. Is your team able to discern where your efforts are needed more?
There will always be variety between good and bad venues. We now have a programme to target town centres in the coming weeks, with visits to all establishments. Any which are deemed to be not meeting the requirements are issued improvement notices, and we have Closure powers after that. There has been a learning curve in terms of getting the message out, but we have ensured that every licensed premises is aware of the requirements, and knows that there are no grey areas. We follow up every complaint, so we will certainly target those places that aren’t following the procedures.
Would it be useful if there were pressure on other places selling alcohol to also close at 10pm, or even slightly earlier? Could politicians help to pressure Welsh Government on this point?
Initially, off-licenses and home deliveries were going to continue but, following much lobbying from officers, shops and off-licenses cannot now sell alcohol after 10pm. This also applies to home deliveries and hotels offering room service. Mingling outside is a problem. Wales introduced a 20-minute ‘drinking up’ period, to try to stagger people gathering when they leave. There could in fact be more gathering because of the 10pm curfew. We raised that with the Gwent Regional Group last week; it has been escalated to the Strategic Coordinating Group, and has gone back to Welsh Government. The Licensing Act of 2003 was brought in precisely to avoid people congregating at the same time. House parties are another concern, as some will want to continue the night after 10pm in this way.
Another step is being considered in the coming weeks for take-away venues. The difficulty is that a take-away venue only requires a licence if they serve hot food and drink after 11pm. But as pub patrons are coming out at 10pm, we wouldn’t have any powers in licensing to deal with those take-aways. Government would therefore have to rule on, say, take-aways also shutting at 10pm; this is something that they are considering now.
Are there enough staffing and resources to cope with the work that needs to be done? Will Environmental Health’s extra work be included in our claim?
The matter of resources has been raised with WLGA and Welsh Government. TTP is on a separate funding stream: all the overtime is claimed back through the Welsh Government grant that runs until the end of March. WG appreciates the matter of enforcement on the streets, which includes Gwent Police. There is £500k potentially coming forward to help. We need to follow that up, in terms of Covid marshals – we have seen these in England. They can do some of the additional work, much of which is out-of-hours (house parties, gatherings at take-aways, etc.) The question of what happens longer-term has gone back to Welsh Government, pointing out that we struggled pre-Covid, so there is a concern about staff overload and burnout.
On p11 of the report, could the heading of ‘Businesses’ be clarified?
003 is the number of premises actively advised. Early on, the conversation was around businesses that had to close, with very few able to open. Some were trying to re-categorise themselves, in order to stay open. It was very difficult, from an enforcement perspective, to interpret legislation which isn’t fully defined, and for which the guidance can be vague. For example, some garden centres were able to stay open because they sold food. The definition in this case is businesses that had to close at that point.
Is it possible for us to put more relevant and important information on our website?
The difficulty is that the regulations change weekly, making it hard to give up-to-date guidance. Perhaps we can put something on the website that links directly to the wales.gov site. Often, people look at the English legislation, which is very different. A good example of navigating the differences, and informing the public, is the 10K run over the Severn Bridge: Welsh Government wouldn’t allow it, but the English government would. We made an effort in licensing to get the email addresses for every establishment so that when new information emerges we can send it to the establishments immediately and directly.
How are the four major towns managed on the 10pm problem, with only four people in the team?
Yes, it is hard. The county is split into 3 areas, A-C. We have a very good relationship with the Police Licensing officers – they pass this information and send police out to venues. We prioritise the most problematic areas. We have an inspection programme now, in which we go to premises during the day if there’s a tip-off that something happened the night before. Enforcement is a mixture of advising premises that perhaps didn’t fully think through the requirements, and helping them to implement strategies, and doing a spot-check with Police if there are persistent complaints and tips from the public. In our case, we are stretched because we have taken the approach that it is environmental health and wider public protection colleagues that are taking forward the tracing, but the consequence is that we have fewer on the enforcement side. We are now in a position where we can’t carry out two important projects because we are stretched by our Covid enforcement and advisory duties.
Are Covid marshals going to be the way forward, especially considering the approaching festive period?
We have a meeting this afternoon with HR on this subject. We put in a bid for 4, and the funding has been agreed, with a mutual support agreement (as with TTP) across county lines. This should give us some capacity to address particular instances of violation, while easing the pressure on existing staff.
It is difficult because it is the landlord’s responsibility inside premises, but not once people are on the pavement. Ultimately, if people want to break the rules, they can go to an off-licence at 9pm. People congregating in closed areas is going to be an extra concern in the winter months, with the poor weather and temperatures. Covid marshals might well be the way forward, long term. We will look to speak to the officers again on this topic in 6 months’ time.