There are around 945 premises dealing with food and drink in Lichfield District – of which more than 400 are due to be inspected during a year.
Lichfield District Council’s food safety team also inspects around 80 new businesses each year according to the latest Food Safety Service Delivery Plan approved earlier this year.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has led to delays in completing routine inspections. And the team has also been working with Staffordshire County Council to develop the Covid-19 outbreak control plan for the county, as well as handling hundreds of requests for advice from businesses and complaints about compliance issues.
Fiona West, food, health and safety manager at Lichfield District Council, told Monday’s regulatory and licensing committee meeting: “The programme for this year would have been 418 programmed inspections, plus any new businesses registered with the authority during that period.
“When the peak of the pandemic started to come to light in mid-March the Food Standards Agency directed us to suspend all routine inspections. The reasons given were so we didn’t contribute to the infections and cause extra complications for businesses.
“What it meant for us as a service was we didn’t complete our delivery plan for the previous financial year. At that point we were 44 inspections away from completing our programme – we usually complete 100 per cent so that was an initial knock to us.
“Then we had a suspension of inspections in April, May, June and July. As a service we used that time to implement the emergency shopping service and to train call handlers to take calls from vulnerable and shielded residents.
“At this moment we are about 271 inspections overdue. The pandemic has created a considerable backlog of work for us but this is not unusual – this is the case with all authorities across the country.”
While physical inspections were off the table the team carried out remote assessments with food businesses, the meeting heard. The worst-performing higher risk premises were contacted to carry out checks.
Ms West said: “We also contacted any new businesses registered with us during that time to check what their arrangements were and determine what risk they presented.
“Interestingly we have had a lot of new businesses registered during lockdown – predominately low-risk home baker-type businesses that don’t pose too many threats but indicate how people have diversified during that period.
“We’ve also been involved in providing advice to an awful lot of businesses across the district; initially to ensure that they stayed closed when they were required to during lockdown but also then to reopen with the correct Covid measures.
“At the end of July the Food Standards Agency came back to us and said ‘you can now undertake routine food safety inspections again but we want these based on risk, so we only want you doing those that are most necessary’.
"Officers have started throughout August and September to undertake routine inspections but it has been a very slow process.
“Every time we get pulled into dealing with more and more Covid-related matters it’s making it quite hard for us to prioritise the food safety work in the same way we would have in the past.
“We are currently investigating more and more complaints about Covid compliance and we get more service advice requests every day from businesses.
"Every time there is a notification from Government that demand on our service ramps up quite significantly.
“We’ve dealt with hundreds of requests for advice and complaints.”