The UK’s leisure and hospitality sector has been heavily affected by prohibitions on social gatherings aimed at restricting the spread of COVID-19. Regulations came into force in England on 26 March 2020 closing cafes, restaurants and pubs. Unless those businesses have been able to reconfigure themselves as delivery or takeaway outlets – taking advantage of a temporary relaxation in change of use rules – doors have remained closed. Businesses deemed to provide essential services, most obviously supermarkets and pharmacies, were allowed to remain open, but the leisure and hospitality economy was effectively shuttered. And in an illustration of what has been to date a broadly uniform UK approach, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have acted in a similar manner and required leisure and hospitality operators including cinemas, theatres, bingo halls and betting shops to cease trading for an emergency period, the length of which remains unspecified.
As we move towards the end of the fifth week of lockdown, there are calls from some quarters for more clarity as to when and how restrictions can be lifted. While the Prime Minister told the country on Monday that it remains too soon to ease the controls in place, leisure and hospitality sector businesses will be thinking about how they can re-open safely when they are allowed to resume trading. It seems inevitable that adjustments will need to be made to their operations. Those adjustments will reflect, in part, the continued need to practice social distancing.
Businesses that have remained open during lockdown have had to recalibrate premises and processes with physical distancing in mind. Government guidance has been clear that advice on social distancing measures applies to everyone and should be followed by employers wherever possible. That means taking steps to maintain a distance of at least two metres between individuals so far as that is feasible. Scotland and Wales have made this a matter of legislation, directing employers to take all reasonable measures to ensure that two-metre distancing is maintained between any persons on business premises. We have seen what this has meant in practice: floor markings in supermarkets set at two-metre intervals; restrictions on entry to premises to avoid crowding; one-way systems to facilitate circulation in store. For example, B&Q re-opened a number of its stores last weekend with a range of controls including caps on customer numbers and two-metre floor markers.
It seems likely that, as part of planning to re-open in due course, leisure and hospitality sector businesses will have to consider how they operate and how they can impose physical distancing on their sites. Existing guidance is useful in identifying examples of what this might look like. Employers should also look out for any new guidance that may be issued alongside directions that ease the current restrictions. Adopting measures set out in Government guidance is likely to be helpful in supporting an argument that employers are doing all that is reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of employees and members of the public. It may be that the sector will need to think about:
- the number of people it allows inside venues at any one time;
- whether control of numbers means queuing at busy times and, if so, how that is to be managed;
- whether the number of people admitted to cinema screenings/theatre performances/museum and gallery exhibitions needs to be reduced so that an increased degree of separation can be achieved;
- whether, in gyms and fitness studios, certain pieces of equipment need to be taken temporarily out of use to maximise the prospect of separation between users;
- how to manage till points and counters areas (e.g. with floor markings, queue monitors);
- whether more bookings can be made remotely;
- whether one way systems would help customers to circulate safely;
- whether signage is necessary to communicate safety messages to customers;
- whether the frequency of cleaning/deep cleaning needs to be increased; and
- whether pop up handwashing stations would be of benefit.
At present, the sale of food and drink for consumption on the premises is prohibited. When that restriction is lifted, it seems likely that cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs will need to revisit their layout with physical distancing in mind. Owners may need to think about removing some tables and chairs so that greater separation is possible between customers. Places where customers congregate, such as food ordering points and bar areas, may need reconsidering. Additional controls may be necessary to avoid clustering.
The duration of the current restrictions on the leisure and hospitality sector is not known. The extent of any conditions that may be imposed on leisure and hospitality businesses as they resume operation is also not yet understood. However, it does appear clear that we will continue to live in an age of physical distancing for some time to come. This will require employers in the sector to reflect on their premises and their processes, identify the steps that can be taken to provide protection to employees and customers and determine how these measures can be implemented. The new control measures that emerge from that review process can usefully be captured in amended risk assessments that demonstrate the adjustments made to take account of the challenges of COVID-19. This will assist employers in discharging the health and safety duties they continue to face.
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