Darren Hull works in Durham County Council’s Trading Standards team. Here, he describes a typical day leading the business compliance team and some of the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

THERE’S no denying that these last few months have proved challenging for myself and my team in Trading Standards. We’ve gone from having weeks, sometimes even months, to put policy changes in place, to having to do it overnight.

Now, as a wide range of shops open their doors for the first time in 12 weeks and people adjust to different ways of shopping, we’re expecting even more calls from people still concerned about social distancing measures and a relaxing of restrictions.

We rely heavily on information from the public to do our job, so it’s no surprise that because of the anxiety felt around coronavirus and the strict guidelines, we have been receiving many complaints.

To date from the start of lockdown, we’ve received almost 270 requests for service, with more than a quarter of them arriving in the first four weeks. Some people were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to get a refund while others complained of seeing huge price rises on essential items. The majority however focused on businesses which were still trading when they shouldn’t be.

Because of the threat of the virus, if concerns were raised around businesses still being open, we had to act immediately and investigate concerns by the end of that day. That meant that even if someone got in touch with us at 2pm, we’d have to look into it before 5pm and respond appropriately, making contact with those businesses.

The safety of my team is really important to me and that meant us following the “stay at home” guidance wherever possible through this. We quickly put procedures in place to make sure they were safe and that the only visits we were making were essential.

There are eight people in my team and keeping in touch with each other has been so important while we’re working from home. Even though we all work quite independently, it’s much easier being able to turn around and ask someone a question when you’re in the same office as them.

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When a complaint comes in, our first task is to make contact with that business. Most are really cooperative and the majority of the time, it’s a case of us reminding them of the guidelines and having a clear conversation. Many though were confused about what fell within the guidelines and we had to make sure they weren’t being misinterpreted too.

For example, some shops thought they’d be okay to remain open if they stocked some essentials but it was the premises, rather than the items they sold, that determined whether they should stay open.

It’s after we have spoken to a business owner and they still refuse to close that we need to take further action and issue something called a prohibition notice, which forces them to close.

Having only just joined the council in January, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly kept me busy. After a day of contacting businesses and reporting back to people who’ve made a complaint, myself and my manager have made sure to keep up with the Prime Minister’s briefings.

Knowing that an announcement has been made that will affect us the following day means that we’re prepared to hit the ground running at 9am the next morning. We can also start contacting businesses straight away to help them manage their reopening.

Sometimes, the guidelines were misinterpreted. We’ve seen many frustrated smaller businesses which couldn’t understand why they weren’t able to open when some larger chains had. Again, that was often down to the type of business they were more than what they sold.

Even though many will be relieved that they can now start reopening, we understand that the challenges aren’t over yet. The guidelines could continue to change quickly depending on the rates of coronavirus and businesses, as well as us, need to be prepared for such challenges and continue to work flexibly around those.