Thanet’s Covid Ambassadors have carried out 580 visits to businesses across the isle since they began in their roles on November 23.
The team, headed up by manager Debbie Huckstep, licensing enforcement officer Alison Stocker and ambassador and former policeman Bob Hughes, visit business properties to ensure covid measures are being followed. The main aim is to check, offer advice and, if necessary, take steps for gradual enforcement.
The team differs from the Covid Wardens, who patrol the streets and advise the public, in that they work directly with traders to help ensure shops and hospitality are taking the correct measures to protect staff and customers.
It was set up with following a busy period for Thanet council’s environmental team which, between March 25 and June 22, had handled serving 60 warning letters for suspected covid breaches; 41 guidance letters, 13 verbal warnings and 12 prohibition notices.
In June TDC a carried out a further 99 interventions, comprising of advice and warning letters.
In July a decision was taken to create a specific covid officer team tasked with supporting the council’s Environmental Health team to visit the isle’s 1,400 food and licensed premises. This was funded by a £92,099 government grant.
The ambassadors do not have enforcement powers but cases will be passed to Kent Police and Trading Standards if this is needed.
Bob says most Thanet businesses are already ‘hugely compliant’ and for many the biggest frustration is customers who refuse to wear a mask.
This is echoed by Ramsgate Rook’s assistant manager Karen Cooper. The King Street store has simple but effective measures in place, such as a one way system, separate entry and exit, signs and a limit on the number of customers allowed inside at any one time.
Karen says the majority of customers are ‘brilliant’ and follow the measures but masks are the main issue. She said: “Some people do not want to wear them and will not have the exemption showing.
“We have to say it protects us and it protects them. I have a vulnerable grandchild and other staff have vulnerable family members and we do not want to take the virus home. We are just doing our job.”
Bob said: “Businesses have a duty of care to staff and themselves. They could agree to serve those customers but outside or decide if they are comfortable with them in the premises.”
Bob says the major part of his role is to give advice and make suggestions if there are measures that could be introduced or altered to make a premises safer.
He said: “Generally we have been received very well. There can be a little bit of tension to start with but as soon as people realise we are here to assist them it becomes very positive.
“We have a straight forward approach, you can normally tell straight away if things have been well done, If something is missing we will suggest it, and we make sure things are as easily achievable as possible.”
One of the businesses in Ramsgate which has a working system with plenty of signs and screens in place is Pete’s Fish Factory on the seafront.
Manager Karl Serveld, who has been at the helm for some 21 years, said preparations to trade during the pandemic were being discussed very early on.
He said: “When I first heard about covid coming into the country I was already thinking about how this could potentially change our business.
“In the first lockdown we were already making sure the shop would be covid secure when we opened so, as the government released information we followed it as closely as we could.”
Karl says the measures are, in a way, just an extension of health, safety and hygiene precautions that are already in place.
He says he has found the ambassador and street warden schemes very helpful, especially when talking to customers about the need to wear a face mask or risk a fine.
He added: “I have a duty of care to my staff and families as well as doing everything to make sure our customers are happy and safe.
“We have been busy. People feel they can trust us with the measures we have taken. We have found the majority of people are willing to wear masks and follow the measures. Because of the harbour lights the evenings have been busy with families and they know they are safe when they come here.”
Back in the town and Prentis grocers is another business that has put in place simple but effective measures with clear signs, a one way system and separate entrance and exits.
Owner John Prentis says the majority of people do follow the measures, especially in this latest round of restrictions.
He said: “The information is there now so people are more understanding of the problems. We decided what needed to be done and did it, it was fine.”
Unlike Prentis, which has been able to stay open as an essential business, the Little Ships restaurant on the harbour, has had to change the way it works.
The business is in the hardest hit hospitality sector and currently can only offer a takeaway and delivery service.
The restaurant, and associated Royal Harbour Hotel and Empire Room up the road, should be bustling with Christmas trade, which will see the business through the leaner months at the start of the year.
Instead the hotel is closed and the Little Ships are carrying out reduced business within Tier restrictions.
Owner James Thomas says the hospitality trade has been scapegoated despite being one of the most covid secure prepared industries.
He said: “We aren’t meant to be a takeaway business, this is small gruel. We can do this on the seafront with the people going to see the harbour lights but the hotel and Empire Room restaurant has had to close.
“The first time around there were grants but this time there is nothing. These months are supposed to get us through the quiet ones but now there is nothing left in the pot.
“It seems everyone is working again except for hospitality, and cinemas etc, but it’s not lockdown. The roads are busy, everyone is working and doing things apart from us.
“We are a licensed industry, used to weights and measures, we understand rules and regulations and we should be safe to open.
“If we are being told we can’t trade then we have to have something to help pay rents and bills.”
The Little Ships is doing a delivery service, including for Christmas Day dinner. Find details at https://littleshipsramsgate.co.uk/
There are occasions when enforcement does have to be taken. The team will refer cases to the appropriate authority when further action is needed.
Among these are:
A golf club in Thanet where a Covid Ambassador spotted customers sitting on benches outside the clubhouse drinking alcohol out of pint glasses.
The ambassador spoke to the manager and advised it was a breach of Tier 3 rules. Guidance was then given on takeaway alcohol and where it can be consumed i.e. off the premises. Further guidance was given on taping off / removing tables and benches from outside.
Inside all measures regarding signs , masks, distancing and hand sanitiser were being followed. A screen is in place around the till area. The business has been revisited twice to ensure compliance.
Covid Ambassadors noticed a member of the public was sitting down on a bench inside a Thanet bakery, eating food. A visit took place to discuss the breach. In the absence of a manager, a member of staff was informed of the breach and issued with the relevant paperwork, which was advice to remove the bench. When a revisit was carried out the bench had been removed.
At a bar in Thanet two people were seen leaving the premises. The door was open, there were lights on, music could be heard and there were two more people seated inside. Neither wore a face covering.
The covid ambassador entered the premises and found that of the two people seated inside, one was the licensee, the other an employee. The two visitors seen leaving were reportedly part of the licensee’s family. Advice was given about wearing face-coverings. Further advice was given about alcohol sales being take-away only. The premises were highly compliant with preventive measures, signage and covid security. This incident was referred to Kent Police for follow up visit.
Extending the scheme
Debbie says the November ‘lockdown’ 2 and Tier 3 measures mean Thanet council will ask for an extension on the scheme, which is currently funded for four months.
She said: “I would like it to be extended for another six months because of the closures in lockdown and Ter 3. I think we need to use funding for when we do move into Tier 2, that is when we are really going to need it most.”
The Covid ambassadors, and the street marshalls, will be working throughout the holiday period apart from Christmas Day.
For more information about the support available for businesses, go to the council’s business hub at thanet.gov.uk/business-advice or visit the Government’s website at gov.uk/coronavirus/business-support. The Kent & Medway support line (03333 602300) for coronavirus-related issues is also open five days a week from Monday to Friday, 8:30am – 5pm.