Councils can now shut down shops and events that risk coronavirus spread

SHOPS, events and outdoor spaces in Oxfordshire could be shut down to stop the spread of Covid-19 under new powers which council leaders have agreed to take on.

Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet today agreed to accept a series of new powers which would allow it to shut down shops and restaurants, events, and public outdoor areas where the coronavirus is thought to be spreading.

This could include retailers and eateries where existing guidance on how to stop Covid – including track and trace registers or the wearing of masks – is not being followed.

The council will hand over the enforcement of these new powers to the district councils which operate in smaller local areas of Oxfordshire, including Oxford’s city council.

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The shutdown powers were agreed by the Government in a series of regulations published in July, and are only supposed to be used ‘if there is a serious and imminent threat to public health’.

Lawrie Stratford, cabinet member for adult social care and public health, welcomed the local approach to stopping the spread of Covid.

Oxford Mail:

Shoppers in Abingdon in June. Picture: Ed Nix

He said: “We are dealing with behaviour during the pandemic where people ignore certain rules.

“The way we deal with that is going to be more effective is by the local people who have the authority to speak highly to people, or a little more harshly if need be; rather than saying ‘nothing to do with me guv’ or the police coming in. We need the police as a last resort I think.”

Meanwhile, deputy council leader Judith Heathcoat said: “This is an exemplar of local government collaboration and will help to support and ensure a co-ordinated response that is also important for our communities.”

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Ian Corkin, the cabinet member for council business and partnerships, described the new powers as a step to prevent further lockdowns.

He added: “One thing I fear is that we end up in a situation where we have restrictive lockdowns across the county again. I think all of our residents will wish to avoid that.

“I hope what this brings is the most appropriate and effective but lightest of touches to deal with issues as they break out without resorting to the much heavier hand we see in other parts of the country at the moment.”

Oxford Mail:

The one-way system stencils in Oxford City Centre. Picture: Ed Nix

Oxfordshire County Council’s interim monitoring officer Steve Jorden said ‘checks and balances’ were in place to stop the powers from being used flagrantly.

Before they can be used, for example, the council will need to gather evidence to show there is a serious risk to public health if a place stays open.

The council also needs to consult the police and the director of public health for their views, and weigh up the affect a closure would have on individuals and communities involved.

And Oxfordshire’s Covid-19 Health Protection Board will oversee any shutdown decisions which do take place.

Read again about the board which is keeping tabs on the local response to the coronavirus pandemic

Mr Jorden added the way Oxfordshire was managing the use of the powers between its two tiers of local government was ‘leading the way nationally’.

The measures are also temporary, and must be reviewed after seven days.

Anyone who disobeys a shutdown order of a shop, event or public place could be fined.

Some places will be exempt from the new orders, including businesses involved in ‘essential infrastructure, vehicles used for public transport or the carriage or haulage of goods’.

The new powers will be carried out by environmental health officers who already work in the different districts of Oxfordshire.

The powers are not related to the concept of ‘Covid marshals’ which Boris Johnson spoke about at a public address from Downing Street last week, though in Oxford, city council staff have been working in the city in a similar capacity to this idea by making sure people are following one-way systems and social distancing.

Cherwell District Council voted in favour of accepting the new emergency powers in principle at a meeting on Monday, September 7, ahead of the county cabinet’s approval.

Other district councils across Oxfordshire are likely to approve the adoption of the new powers in coming weeks.