Preparing food businesses for COVID-19 outbreaks and investigations

Food Standards Scotland and Public Health Scotland have produced a guidance document to support food business operators with preparing for the investigations that will take place if an outbreak of COVID-19 is suspected in the workforce.

The Investigation of COVID-19 Outbreaks in Food Businesses guidance aims to help Food Business Operators (FBOs) to better understand the investigations that will take place when an outbreak of COVID-19 is identified in their workforce, and how an Incident Management Team (IMT) will decide on the actions that need to be taken to stop the further spread of the virus in the workplace and the wider community.

Whilst it is acknowledged that every outbreak is different, and there is no single set of defined criteria that can be used in every situation to determine the required steps to protect public health, reading this guidance will assist FBOs in preparing for the types of questions that are likely to be asked during an investigation and the broad principles that inform decisions taken by the IMT, including whether a business should be closed or can remain open.

The guidance also underlines the importance of FBOs being able to demonstrate to the IMT that they have taken appropriate steps to protect their workforce from the risks of COVID-19.  

Key advice for FBOs in the guidance includes:

  • Identify – to help identify a potential outbreak of COVID-19, maintain up-to-date records of working patterns of staff and maintain accurate sickness absence records across the whole workforce. An outbreak should be suspected if there are two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the setting within 14 days, or an increase in the rate of absence due to suspected or confirmedcases of COVID-19.
  • Act - If there is any indication that an outbreak of COVID-19 may have occurred in the workforce (or there is an increased risk of one occurring), contact the relevant local NHS Board Health Protection Team (HPT) at the earliest opportunity. Contact details can be found here. The HPT will carry out an initial risk assessment quickly and will convene an IMT if an outbreak is suspected to confirm whether this is the case, and, if so, take over the investigation and identify appropriate action required to protect public health.
  • Control – understand the FBO’s legal obligations with regard to COVID-19 controls and the relevant guidance documents on safe working practices during the pandemic. These are frequently updated on FSS's website pages for food businesses.       
  • Prepare – understand in advance what information the IMT will require, which will include questions looking for accurate records of staff working on each shift and visitors to your site; how your workforce is organised; how employees move through the premises; plans for controlling the spread of COVID-19 leading up to the outbreak; preventative measures put in place to reduce the risks of COVID-19 at work; auditing procedures; staff PPE; cleaning procedures; how COVID-19 controls are communicated to staff and more.

Remember, where the food business is unable to provide sufficient evidence that they have effective COVID-19 measures in place, the IMT will inevitably have less confidence in the business and will require stronger action to be taken to protect public health.

In the event of food business closure or part closure, every effort will be made by the IMT to support the FBO in identifying where changes or improvements need to be made in order to minimise the risks of any further incidents. The re-opening of a premises is a decision for the IMT, together with the appropriate regulatory body.

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