By ALEX METCALFE, Local Democracy Reporter
KEEPING safe by staying at home has been the mantra most Teessiders have been living by in the past week.
Changes to the law mean people are only allowed to leave their homes for shopping for “basic necessities”, one form of exercise a day, medical reasons, to provide care or help a vulnerable person – or travelling to and from work but only if it’s “absolutely necessary”.
Ensuring a two metre distance between others has been urged to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
But there have been some concerns about distancing in some stores and what is classed as an “essential shop”.
Officials from Middlesbrough Council have offered up answers to some common questions on the rules and powers.
Am I allowed to buy non-essential goods from shops even though they’re on sale?
In short, if it’s on sale at a business allowed to open, you are allowed to buy it.
The council official said: “The law uses the term essential only in regard to the essential upkeep of the household and restricts by type the number of businesses that can open or trade.
“Therefore, you can buy any goods from any businesses which are allowed to open or trade.
“The main restriction is that any business that is not allowed to open to the public for face-to-face sales or service can still sell goods or service – so long as it is via text, online, phone or post and goods are delivered.”
Is Middlesbrough Council stopping stores from selling particular items during the covid-19 outbreak?
Regulations passed by the Government last week have listed premises allowed to open during the pandemic – including food retailers, off-licenses, homeware, building supplies and hardware stores among others.
The full list can be found here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/350/made
However, there were some concerns from the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) earlier this week about “overzealous enforcement” and the rules being “misread” when it came to items which could or could not be sold.
The council official moved to clear up the rules – again pointing to the rule that people can buy goods from businesses which are allowed to open.
He added: “If there is no legal restriction in place to prevent shops selling goods, then they cannot be required to close.
“However, only food businesses that sell food for consumption off the premises, including food retailers, are allowed to open directly to the public.
“There is no restriction on the nature of the food sold and food is not defined in the regulations as being essential or non-essential – it simply says basic necessities including food.”
Middlesbrough Council confirmed its teams were monitoring the town for non-compliance with the rules but had not yet had cause to take any action against businesses which should not be open.
And the picture was similar elsewhere on Teesside.
Redcar and Cleveland Council’s licensing team has visited a number of businesses but has not found any premises open that should be closed.
Meanwhile, Stockton Council said a couple of businesses had been given advice on operating within the new regulations and it was pleased with the number of firms complying.
Is it the council’s job to make sure staff in shops or workplaces are not disobeying social distancing rules?
Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham sounded concerns yesterday about shoppers and shopkeepers across the borough failing to maintain proper social distancing – putting themselves and their families at risk.
He said: “We each have a part to play in these difficult times.
“To protect the NHS and to save lives, social distancing guidelines must be followed.
“I have seen the measures put in place by some of the larger supermarkets but shops, even those in local neighbourhoods, also have a duty to ensure the guidance is adhered to.
“This means they must limit the flow of customers in-store at any one time, allowing people to pick up their essentials safely.”
Police can issue an on-the-spot fine, or charge someone with a crime, if they break one of two key social distancing rules.
Namely, leaving the place where they live “without reasonable excuse” – and being in a public gathering of more than two people.
The two metre rule is not a legal requirement but is being strongly encouraged to keep everyone safe.
The Middlesbrough Council official said the authority was offering advice and guidance to firms on social distancing.
He added: “The law, which is enforced by police, is that no person may participate in a gathering in a public place of more than two people except where it is necessary for work purposes, to attend a funeral, to provide emergency assistance, to participate in legal proceedings or fulfil a legal obligation, or to facilitate a house move.
“The social distancing of two metres is not a legal requirement – but is a sensible precaution to help to prevent the spread of the virus and all businesses should follow the government guidelines.”
What new enforcement powers do council officials have?
As well as the police, council officials have the power to issue fixed penalty notices for non-compliance with the coronavirus laws.
The official said: “They include the power to issue a prohibition notice requiring the closure of a commercial premises that is not permitted to open, to issue fixed penalty notices for non-compliance with the regulations.
“And the police also have powers in relation to dispersing public gatherings and to take enforcement action against anyone who contravenes the requirements of the regulations.”
Am I allowed to browse in shops?
Some shops on Teesside have introduced one-way systems and special markings to ensure social distancing is maintained.
The council officer said shops which were legally allowed to open should be following government guidelines on social distancing.
He added: ”People should not be leaving their home unless it is for the reasons listed in the regulations – i.e. to buy food or medicine or items that are necessary for the essential upkeep of their household.
“I would suggest browsing in shops should not be happening.”