Hotels must be sure their premises are ‘Covid secure’ – Jacqueline Rédarès

The prospect of a mid-July reopening should focus the minds of hospitality sector operators, says Jacqueline Rédarès

Jacqueline Rédarès, Senior Associate and health & safety specialist at law firm CMS
Jacqueline Rédarès, Senior Associate and health & safety specialist at law firm CMS

UK hotels have been severely affected by the coronavirus lockdown. Here in Scotland, there was the grim sight of the Balmoral Hotel being boarded up as Covid-19 took hold while another iconic Edinburgh hotel, The Caledonian, closed its doors for the first time in its 117-year history.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also warned in May, of an increased risk of Legionnaires’ Disease (or legionella) caused by closed or reduced occupancy of buildings. This issue potentially impacts not just the many mothballed hotels but a number of other commercial premises including pubs, restaurants, offices, retail outlets, hairdressers and sports clubs.

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There is, however, light at the end of a long tunnel as hotels, along with other hospitality businesses, could begin to reopen on July 15 if public health advice allows progression to Phase 3 of the Scottish Government’s lockdown route map.

Since closing their doors in March, hotels across Scotland have been carrying out risk assessments and implementing safety measures, with no specific guidance, requiring them to keep sufficient staff employed despite a collapse in income. These actions are, however, essential as hotel health and safety, regulated by local authorities, requires operators to safeguard both their workforce and the wider public. Legal breaches can potentially result in criminal liability with unlimited fines.

While the threat of Legionnaires’ Disease is a risk that hotel operators are well versed in managing, the HSE’s warning also covers the elevated threat it presents to those infected with Covid-19 as legionella bacteria can cause serious respiratory illness.

Many hotels have already been reviewing and revising risk assessments and treatments to their water systems where necessary as legionella bacteria can thrive when water is left to stagnate, particularly after this period of extended shutdown, accompanied by warmer weather.

The steps required to address Legionnaires’ Disease can be considerable. For hotels, this may begin with simple, methodical but often time-consuming measures such as keeping water running through pipes. Some of the larger hotel groups have reported weekly routines of turning on each of their hundreds of taps and flushing all the toilets in their empty premises to release standing water. For those whose premises include more complex water systems, such as swimming and spa pools, there is separate guidance available and support may be required from specialist water treatment consultants. Where actions are required to address legionella, there is the added challenge of shortages of chemicals, safety supplies and availability of specialist advisers. With the prospect of a mid-July reopening, assessing this issue is a key priority.

As important as this threat is, managing the risks of legionella is just one of the many issues hotel operators have had to face as they emerge from four months of lockdown. Reopening is only permitted with strict social distancing measures in place. This will present a massive challenge, even if the Scottish Government decides to reduce the two-metre distancing rule.

In health and safety terms, hotel operators’ plans are looking not just to their staff but also their guests. To ensure premises are, as the HSE now refers to it, ‘COVID secure,’ will require enhanced, deep cleaning of rooms as well as common areas within their premises, particularly those where there are frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, elevator buttons, and within toilet areas. The provision of hand wash facilities or hand sanitiser stations at entry and exit points will also need to be considered.

Some hotels will be looking at changes to the layout of their reception areas to better ensure social distancing. This could include preventing access to certain areas, reconfiguring seating arrangements, putting signage on flooring, creating one-way systems and/or placing barriers in shared spaces. Providing PPE for cleaning and maintenance staff will also be an important consideration.

Given its huge economic importance, let’s hope the public health criteria will be met to allow the reopening of Scotland’s hospitality sector by 15 July. It’s encouraging to know about the significant work already under way as there is much to do to ensure hotels and other public facing hospitality businesses can function safely going forward.

Jacqueline Rédarès, Senior Associate and health & safety specialist at law firm CMS

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