Agenda item

Verbal Update on WRS ( Licensing) response to Covid-19, including summary of decisions taken under delegated authority


Members received a verbal report in relation to the work that Worcestershire Regulatory Services had undertaken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020 from the Senior Practitioner (Licensing), Worcestershire Regulatory Services (WRS).


In the initial stages when lockdown was imposed in March 2020 there were challenges in setting up staff to work from home and in making alternative arrangements for licensed drivers to access the team given that government buildings had been closed and it was no longer possible to hold the usual licensing surgeries at the Town Hall.


It was necessary to work quickly to introduce new systems to enable applications to be submitted electronically and for customers to be communicated with.


Other steps taken at this stage included: -


·       Communicating with licence holders to signpost them to the government support schemes, such as the Self-Employment income Support Scheme.


·       Allowing licensed drivers whose licences expired after March 2020 to defer renewal for up to 6 months without being classed as a “new applicant”.


·       Regularly publishing advice to licensed drivers on the steps they could take to work safely during the pandemic.


Decision making powers were delegated by the Council to the head of Worcestershire Regulatory Services to enable him to determine taxi and private hire applications which would normally have been referred to the Licensing Sub-Committee. 


It was noted that under these delegated powers, since March officers had dealt with: -


·       14 applications for hackney carriage vehicle licenses all of which had been granted.

·       7 applications for private hire vehicle licences of which 6 had been granted and 1 refused.

·       3 applications for hackney carriage or private hire driver licences of which 1 had been granted and 2 refused.


With regard to the mandatory closure of pubs and restaurants, the Licensing officers worked with colleagues from the Environmental Health Team to monitor compliance with the business closure regulations.


Changes were introduced to allow pubs and restaurants more time to pay their annual premises licence fees, and advice was issued on the WRS website to assist those business which might be able to adapt to providing take away or delivery services.


Following the decision by the government to start opening non-essential commercial premises, hospitality venues were permitted to re-open from 4th July 2020.  Licensing officers worked with both Environmental Health Officers and the Police to visit licensed premises when they re-opened to ensure they were following guidance and operating safely.


The guidance was regularly updated, and officers responded to numerous enquiries from business operators and from the public wishing to clarify what businesses could and could not do.


Whilst overall there were very good levels of compliance by businesses wanting to make their premises safe, some complaints were received from the public and this was another area where the Licensing officers had worked with other colleagues to investigate concerns.


In late July the government introduced measures in the Business and Planning Act 2020 to enable “pavement licences” to be issued.  The aim was to provide extra outdoor seating capacity on the highway adjacent to businesses which would provide more space for social distancing and help businesses to trade.  The new measures were introduced with very short timescales and officers had to work quickly to process applications.


The same legislation also made changes to allow licensed premises previously restricted to on sales to also offer customers the option of purchasing alcohol to be consumed off the premises.


On the 18th September new regulations were brought into force, which imposed a legal duty on businesses in the hospitality sector, including pubs, bars and restaurants to:


·       Display the NHS Test and Trace QR code

·       Request and retain customer contact details for customers not scanning the NHS Test and Trace QR code

·       Ensure compliance with the “Rule of 6”

·       Ensure social distancing is maintained between different groups


These regulations were followed in quick succession by regulations imposing further requirements including:-


·       A curfew on businesses in the hospitality sector between 10 pm and 5 am

·       A requirement for businesses selling alcohol to ensure food and drink is ordered and served to customers who are seated on the premises

·       A requirement for businesses supplying food and drink to ensure their customers only consume food or drink when seated.

·       A requirement for customers and staff in food and drink premises to wear face coverings

·       A prohibition on allowing customers to dance or sing in large groups

·       A maximum decibel level for music played in the premises

·       A requirement to display notices to remind people to wear face coverings


It was envisaged that there would be further work for the Licensing officers going forward in supporting businesses with changes to regulations and monitoring compliance. 


Overall, the team had had to cover a much increased workload in the last six months due to the pandemic and rapidly changing regulations.  This had been challenging at times but there had also been good examples of joint working with other colleagues from public health, environmental health and the police.


In response to questions from Members the Senior Practitioner (Licensing) clarified that: -


·       Consideration would be given to retaining some of the changes to processes which had proved beneficial to customers and officers.  One example was the introduction of receiving applications from licenced drivers electronically which had worked well.

·       Throughout advice had been given by WRS strongly recommending that licensed drivers and their passengers wear face coverings.  The latest regulations had made it a legal requirement for passengers to wear face coverings.

·       Drivers were being encouraged to switch to cashless payments either through using a payment device or by the operator taking payment or through use of an App; this was a choice though for drivers, and payment by cash was still possible.

·       General advice on maintaining safe working practices had been given to licensed drivers by WRS throughout the pandemic and regularly updated.  Overall compliance with that advice had been good and most drivers had followed it.  (For reference, officers would circulate to Members a link to the advice on the WRS website.)


The Chair thanked the Senior Practitioner (Licensing) for the report and took the opportunity to pass on the thanks of the Members to all the officers for their hard work under challenging circumstances since March.




The contents of the verbal update be noted.