Wigan Council Regulatory Services

Keeping our residents safe through the use of data – The Supermarket Project

Briefly describe the initiative/ project/service; please include your aims and objectives

Supermarkets remained open throughout the pandemic because of their essential role especially during lockdown. They were also highlighted nationally as a place people were likely to be exposed to coronavirus. People have to buy food, and local government officials were asked by ministers to target the largest supermarkets for inspection to ensure companies were enforcing mask wearing, social distancing and limits on shopper numbers. There were growing concerns about a more transmissible variant of the virus and increasing infection numbers despite most other venues being closed.

Data from PHE was published which indicated many covid cases had visited supermarkets in the days prior to infection with covid. They insisted their data did not suggest supermarkets were at the centre of coronavirus transmission in the UK, saying it does not prove where someone was infected with the disease. please refer to diagram 1 on uploaded document. The Chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said it was ‘misleading and irresponsible’ to suggest supermarkets are a source of Covid-19 transmission She said: ‘Supermarkets are one of the very few places that people can visit during lockdown so it is unsurprising that they feature strongly when people are asked where they have visited. ‘They have spent hundreds of millions on safety measures including perspex screens, additional cleaning, and social distancing, to keep customers and colleagues safe.’

Robert Jenrick, the cabinet minister for local government, as well as housing, will ask for “robust measures” by retailers, a government spokesperson has said. Local authorities already carry out safety inspections on premises routinely, and have the power to issue improvement notices, with possible fines or even jail time for repeated non-compliance. Supermarkets said that they would increase efforts to enforce lockdown rules such as the mandatory wearing of masks, except for those people with medical exemptions. One said it would refuse to serve people if they did not comply, while others put security staff on the door of bigger shops. Councils had a crucial role to play. Wigan set up working ‘cells’ in several areas, some meeting daily, some weekly and all the cells reported back to senior leaders on a weekly basis so they had an overview. Officers in Regulatory Services worked in partnership with the Council’s Public Health Team to support the National Test and Trace System. They also worked tirelessly to provide guidance to businesses to ensure they understand how to reduce transmission of COVID in the workplace. Wigan Borough has over 300 000 residents and 12 000 businesses affected by the pandemic and we wanted to make sure we made best use of all our resources support them.

Regulatory Services at Wigan had identified an increasing number of complaints about covid measures not being adhered to in supermarkets locally. We decided to carry out a postcode analysis of cases in Wigan to establish if there was a correlation between visits to supermarkets, covid cases and complaints. Analysis of local data did identify local supermarkets as hotspots for the transmission of COVID, so we put together an initiative to investigate the local situation, clarify the issues and find ways to support compliance in supermarkets. We wanted to ensure supermarkets understood the measures needed, that they were implementing those measures, and we wanted to increase public confidence and reduce the number of cases and complaints. This approach to utilising data and intelligence provided a common understanding of the difficulties facing supermarkets, which directly informed decision making and ensured that our resources were effectively targeting the hot spot areas based on real data rather than re actively responding to anecdotal complaints.

What are the key achievements?

The number of complaints about supermarkets has reduced significantly since the initiative started. As have the number of Common Exposure events associated with Supermarkets. Please refer to diagram 2 on the uploaded document. In fact there were no supermarket exposure events recorded since 27 March 2021 at all. This follows the trend of positive cases reducing in Wigan, but it is of note that supermarkets are no longer featured as hotspots Please refer to diagram 3 on the uploaded document
Supermarkets followed the trend of positive cases and has reduced to very low figures into April. Despite peaks in other Common Exposure settings in March.
Please refer to diagram 4 on the uploaded document Local supermarkets have been grateful for all the help and support we have given them. Important relationships have been built between the stores and the council and store managers have said ‘’it is reassuring to know they will always have that point of contact now when they need support. ’’The common exposures seen on this graph show that “Shopping” is now classified as Low risk in the Common Exposure Metrics.

The initiative supported supermarket staff with changing customer behaviour as they were struggling to ensure customers followed the guidance. They had also felt unable to challenge those not wearing masks in case they received abuse. Council Officers and the Police pro actively visited supermarkets to raise awareness of the importance of wearing face coverings and explain the guidance and risks to residents. This in turn offered re assurance to the staff and customers and strengthened the working partnerships between all parties. There are many factors involved in the transmission rates of COVID, and it is difficult to measure the success of initiatives like this. It has motivated local supermarkets to keep informing shoppers and those messages reinforce the campaigns being run Nationally. They are reassured that we are in this together and we all must do what we can. From a wider perspective, it has demonstrated the value and impact that the use of intelligence can make to informing decision making; enabling efficient use of resources; targeting our approach to service delivery and supporting the achievement of organisational priorities. The Covid pandemic has been a watershed moment for the use of data and intelligence; projects like these are inspiring a culture of inquisitiveness and enquiry; supporting our ambition to become a truly data-led organisation.

How innovative is your initiative?

Local COVID infection rates were rising, so rather than respond to individual complaints with little detail, we worked with our Joint Intelligence unit and Public Health Teams to take a granular approach to analyse the information we had and whether supermarkets were indeed a local hotspot for transmission. A common exposures dataset was extracted from the Covid-19 Situational Awareness Explorer (CER). CER use NHS Test and Trace enhanced contact tracing data to identify locations or activities reported by two or more cases. Using enhanced contact tracing data from the backwards period to identify shared locations, setting and activities reported by cases. This data was carefully analysed. Healthcare settings were the most significant exposure locations, and Public Health were already working closely with these settings. The next highest risk category that stood out was supermarkets, shown in the table below. This confirmed that supermarkets were hotspots for transmission. Wigan Borough has over 80 supermarkets and several hundred smaller grocery outlets so we needed to fine tune this information further. Further detailed analysis was done, looking at specific supermarkets and their locations. The results are shown below and enabled our team to focus their attention on the areas which where the biggest risk of exposure to coronavirus. (please refer to diagram 5 on uploaded doc) *It is important point to note that this data doesn’t confirm where someone caught COVID, it highlights common areas positive cases visited before their diagnosis.

The method used to identify “common exposures” in enhanced contact tracing data is comprehensive and sensitive. The methodology ensures that linked events are not missed but may result in false case linkages and case exposure events. Therefore the next stage was to investigate the sites highlighted to determine what proactive actions, if any, needed to be taken. Complaints from the public about supermarkets were increasing during this period. We’d had 47 complaints re supermarkets
between August 2020 and January 2021, and this had been discussed at a multi-agency COVID Compliance Cell. This cell is the virtual meeting where complaints were collated daily and intel shared between internal and external partner agencies. The main complaints stated social distancing was not being observed and customers weren’t wearing face masks. It was interesting as the data showed we hadn’t received complaints about the employees or had employee positive cases linked to
the supermarkets. Supermarkets were selected for site visits based on the analysis of data and on complaints received. The aim of the visits was to assess the COVID controls in selected supermarkets . We created a detailed checklist for Officers to complete during the unannounced visits at peak shopping times (Saturday afternoon) to observe the controls being implemented.

The checklist ensured a consistent approach and enabled Officers to record their findings which would be shared with the supermarket managers, head offices and Primary Authority partnerships. It included detailed sections about queuing systems/ signage/ staff / customer behaviour / checkout/ self-service checkout / Toilets / other comments. These initial visits were to carry out observations only with no enforcement. The information collected would inform a strategy to approach local supermarkets about the practical improvements needed. In total 12 supermarkets were visited on the 23January 2021.

We planned to work in partnership with the supermarkets, their central offices and associated primary authorities to keep stores Covid-secure within the Wigan borough. The initiative would open a line of communication with the supermarkets and all parties involved, to provide advice at a local level and offer support where necessary to keep our residents safe.

The completed questionnaires were reviewed and the main areas of concern related to
– Footfall – numbers allowed in the premises at one time.
– barriers around staff restocking
– pinch points where customers clustered together
– staff not challenging customers who were not wearing face masks.

It was noted that more younger people weren’t wearing masks and lots of people weren’t wearing them correctly, i.e. their nose wasn’t covered. A number of reasons were given for not wearing face coverings :
– Going into the store to buy one
– Don’t have one but I stay away from people
– Asthmatic, Anxiety, other medical reasons – advised them about obtaining an exemption notice/lanyard to wear
– I think its all a scam
– Forgotten it

The findings were shared with the supermarkets at a local and national level and they were contacted to discuss the findings further and asked if they would be willing to work with us to improve procedures. They were very happy to co operate and willing to improve.

What are the key learning points?

Regulatory Services worked in close collaboration with a range of partners to identify how to maximise their special skill set, to take a pragmatic, collaborative approach to make a difference. Intelligence from a range of sources was used to scope what was needed locally to reduce transmission, and a project to change customer behaviour in supermarkets was delivered. The collaborative approach was particularly important in guiding the focus of the analytical work; with a shared understanding of what the information was saying and close connections to the services involved, we were able to deliver analytical products that directly informed the delivery of our response to supermarkets in a very targeted and proportionate way. Data was visualised utilising both Excel and Tableau, ensuring that whilst it might be ‘whizzy’ at the back end, it was easy to digest at the front end by practitioners working on our Covid response. We worked collectively to interpret what the data was telling us and informed further deep dives, or areas of focus for ongoing monitoring.

Additional Comments 

Rapid Covid Test kits are now available for the public so we are trialling handing them out in some areas to encourage people to test themselves, some local supermarkets involved in our initiative are assisting with this. Three in 10 Which? members currently feel unsafe in the shops based on retailers’ implementation of social distancing and hygiene measures and other customers’ behaviour, according to new Which? research