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Catering for the coronavirus: Food health & safety firm offers advice on working to re-open

The hospitality and catering industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. With many food service operations paused since March 23, pubs, hotels, restaurants, cafés and fast food chains have been shut down and are now financially strained.

Although some businesses have been able to adapt quickly to a limited click and collect or delivery-based service, the economic impact has been devastating, with closures seeing many forced to throw away stock and various suppliers and farmers suffering knock-on effects.

The government has said that the hospitality industry will be one of the last parts of the economy to be fully revived, as it is naturally characterised by close physical proximity. And, when the restrictions do eventually relax, people could well be fearful of resuming their old habits, so the industry will need to reassure returning customers with well-thought out and proven safety procedures.

Navitas, one of the leading safety consultancies in the UK with over 30 years’ experience supporting the catering and hospitality industry, has therefore launched a ‘Covid Control’ certification scheme to ensure that, as food businesses reopen, they are able to demonstrate that they comply with the government guidelines on control measures in catering environments.

Derek Gardner, Environmental Health Consultant and a Director at Navitas, says the UK’s need to address the economic crisis caused by the pandemic will mean food and drink businesses will have to reopen at some stage soon.

“Although timescales are unpredictable and the public’s health and safety must come first, financial pressures will require the hospitality, food and beverage sector to re-open at the earliest opportunity,” he said.

“Societal behaviours will most definitely change as a result of the widespread disruption and danger we have all been exposed to and businesses will need to demonstrate high levels of coronavirus controls in order to ensure staff and customer safety, to reassure reluctant customers and to secure the future of their establishments.”

Takeaway commercial kitchens have been allowed to remain open but the government has not as yet given any detailed guidelines on the safety of staff in these environments. It is still very challenging for kitchens to have effective controls in place, particularly as most kitchens are relatively confined areas.

 “While temporary social distancing measures such as ‘one in, one out‘ systems have been put in place in most fish and chip shops, for example, employers still have a ‘duty of care’ to their staff and must seek to implement effective controls both back of house and front of house. That way local cafés and even fast-food restaurants should be able to re-open as early as possible under strict health and safety procedures.”

The government has indicated the hospitality industry is unlikely to be able to reopen as normal, however, so Navitas will be offering free preparation advice to those in need with their new ‘Covid Control’certification in the form of practical guidelines which will fall in line with government recommendations.

“We are looking to get caterers and their facilities as prepared as possible to safely operate and re-open when legally allowed to do so and this includes the need to get hold of protective equipment (PPE).

“Our guidelines deal with three key areas – front of house procedures and the practical controls to stop any spread of covid-19, food production and kitchen work areas and finally general controls for staff.

“These include regular staff health declarations upon returning to work, coronavirus awareness training and reporting of government procedures for staff, plus the appointment of a designated Covid Champion and a model checklist to follow,” he said.

“Their responsibility would be to conduct and monitor hourly checks for front-of-house separation of customers, the correct use of protective equipment and various other controls.”

Adding that the industry doesn’t expect that limitations will continue to be in place forever post-Covid, Derek said: “In time, I would expect these enhanced controls to be reduced, once the Covid threat has been eradicated. Standard cleaning and sanitising, cross-contamination and infection controls will be then sufficient.

Navitas’ advice and certification will assist businesses in re-opening at their earliest opportunity with effective safety procedures in place. These might include: enhanced sanitising stations around touchpoints like light switches and handles, the adoption of a system of travel and signage that displays it, reviewed seating and screening arrangements between tables, all the way through to contactless payment and the introduction of disposable PPE equipment in kitchens across the UK.

Noting that many businesses were quick to close-down upon the immediate lock-down enforced by the government last month, Derek adds that commercial kitchens may need to be aware of some of the potential risks from such a swift ‘close down’.

“There are various dangers to closing a premises, from leaving the oil in your fryers through to electricity being dormant for so long. One of the biggest threats to come out of the pandemic is pest infestation as, in the relative absence of humans, pests such as rodents are returning to the quiet cities. If people haven’t been near the premises and food stock has been left out, pest infestation could be a significant risk.

“People also often forget that, during a time of closure, annual certifications of statutory testing of electric and gas may have expired. You also risk your reputation, if you do not consider the potential impacts on the customer.”

Navitas will conduct a full audit to ensure a catering facility is fit to operate. They will regulate hand washing to a minimum of every 20 minutes, evaluate staff levels and spaces to reduce human contact and check delivery procedures and the safe decanting and unwrapping of food packaging.

There are also concerns around safety in canteens with schools, as pupils’ education suffers, schools may reopen even sooner than restaurants.

“We are well-experienced in dealing with the education sector and the ‘Covid Control’ certification could be key when putting parents at ease about sending children back to school,” Derek said.

“It would be logical to implement similar measures to the hospitality industry in order to significantly reduce the risk of transmission.

“For instance, you could pre-order lunch during morning registration so that catering staff can prepare earlier on and then have a simple pick-up service which means there is reduced queuing times and self-serve options for students.

“Moreover, increased staggering of lunch breaks would reduce numbers in the canteen at any one time, help spread seating out and enable staff to enforce hand and tray sanitising procedures more easily.”

With little detail in government guidance on how the hospitality industry can ready itself for reopening, Navitas’ instructions and accreditation can help businesses to begin putting in place simple controls for when the time comes.

While customers of the scheme will receive advice as soon as they register, Navitas will release a second version to ensure their guides work to any legislation subsequently outlined by the government.

“In these extremely challenging times, we consider our guidance to be the best-case scenario that will enable our industry to reopen its doors optimistically, safely and speedily to the public.”