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Stores in focus; reopenings, safety and single use (plastic) setback

31 July 2020

With stores reopened, retailers face an unprecedented operational challenge in delivering the retail experience.

The UK Government published its Working Safely During Covid-19 In Shops and Branches guidance (Guidance) on operating safely while minimising the risk of cases spreading. Many retailers carefully balanced the Guidance requirements with their own commercial and operational drivers and were able to reopen their stores in June – we take a brief look at some of the health, safety and sustainability drivers moving forward. Of course, this is an evolving picture so make sure you stay close to any post-July developments.

Why does it matter?

(1) Safety first 

Retailers, like other employers, have a duty under health and safety legislation (such as the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974) and common law to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees whilst at work by providing them with a safe workplace and system of working. This existing system is now supplemented by the Guidance which is intended to assist retailers in re-opening and operating their stores to protect employees and customers during the pandemic. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution and the way that each retailer discharges its duties will depend on the nature, activities and operations of the store in question. A risk assessment should have been considered, in consultation with trade unions or employees, to ensure that each re-opened store can manage the risks of Covid-19 moving forward. Remember, these obligations do not end on re-opening day and failure to comply on an ongoing basis may, in the worst case, result in employees refusing to work, employment claims, and/or regulatory enforcement action. 

Retailers have looked to innovative ways to meet their obligations to maintain a Covid-secure environment:

  • Distancing. Many retailers have moved towards contactless collection and delivery services, some restaurants in China have introduced conveyor belts to transport food to customers and other businesses are developing apps to track employees’ distance from others. 
  • Symptom testing and assessments. Some retailers are using Covid-19 testing or assessments to protect employee health. There are, though, various legal considerations to work through before implementing this sort of measure. On the data protection side, retailers that intend to carry out such testing and assessments must complete a data protection impact assessment and comply with higher data protection obligations as the ICO has confirmed that employee health data is ‘special category data’.
  • Hygiene and cleanliness. Whilst most retailers are ramping up cleaning frequency and installing sanitation stations, some businesses are looking into cleaning robots and upgraded air-filtration systems.
(2) Single-use (plastic) setback 

Sustainability remains high on the retail agenda and, with the increased scrutiny of in-store operations, many retailers will be relieved that the Government’s ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has been pushed back to October 2020. Ensuring sanitary conditions in the context of multi-use items would, of course, add to the risk profile for any store and sourcing alternatives to single-use plastics from suppliers may be difficult in the current Covid-19 climate.


What action should you consider?

1. Ensure that you are familiar with the Guidance (including any (inevitable) updates) as well as the HSE guidance and think about how you will maintain records of compliance. 

2. Understand your broader obligations to your workforce and stress test your plan of action for responding to specific concerns.

3. Consider innovative ways to ensure a Covid-secure environment in a manner which is commercially and operationally efficient.

4. Consider how your supply chain may need to be adjusted to ensure that you can comply with the single-use plastic ban by October 2020.

5. Consider retaining store safety literature and hardware after restrictions are lifted, in the event of a second “spike”.

6. Longer-term, consider how you might dispose of unwanted spare plastic/materials. Are there sustainable options?


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