POLITICAL leaders in Oxfordshire have made assurances that newly adopted powers to shut down shops, events and outdoors spaces to stem the tide of coronavirus will be used sparingly.

The shutdown powers were laid out by the Government in a series of regulations published in July, and are only supposed be used ‘if there is a serious and imminent threat to public health’.

Oxfordshire County Council's cabinet agreed to adopt them yesterday (September 15) and will now pass on the power to enforce these rules to district authorities.

The leaders of these district councils have welcomed the powers as ‘reasonable’ and assured residents the harshest measures would be used sparingly.

Oxford City Council’s Mary Clarkson, the cabinet member for City Centre, Covered Market and Culture, said the council had already agreed to accept the powers.

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Ms Clarkson said: “This will enable our Environmental Health Officers to act quickly to close premises, public outdoor places and stop events from going ahead where they believe there is a serious and imminent threat to public health from coronavirus.

“The Director of Public Health still has to be consulted and approve any proposed legal action to ensure a consistent approach is taken across Oxfordshire.”

Sue Cooper, the Lib Dem leader of South Oxfordshire District Council said the powers, which will be handed down to environmental health workers across Oxfordshire’s districts, were very similar to existing rules for how to stop food poisoning or hygiene problems.

Oxford Mail:

Witney as shops reopened in June. Picture: Ed Nix

Ms Cooper said: “Officer already work with pubs, cafes, restaurants et cetera, so it is not unreasonable for them to take on this work.

“This is the same sort of work they do all the time, only this is specifically in relation to Covid 19. It is an entirely sensible way to act going forward.”

Her counterpart at the Vale said the powers to shut down premises would only be used as a last resort.

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Lib Dem leader Emily Smith said: “One of the benefits of the district council doing this work is we already have good links with our local businesses: we know them well.”

She added: “If there was a report that a local business was not following guidance on Covid, the first stage would be to help them understand the guidance in an informal, approachable manner.”

Ms Smith also said she was glad to hear the new powers were being paid for by funding from Central Government.

Oxford Mail:

Shoppers in Abingdon as retailers reopened in June. Picture: Ed Nix

And a spokesman for West Oxfordshire District Council said: “We welcome the discussions with the County Council on this as they would be important powers to have in the toolbox if Covid-19 cases rise in West Oxfordshire.

“We are committed to working in partnership with the County Council and other Oxfordshire stakeholders in order to manage Covid 19 risks effectively.”

Cherwell District Council had approved the use of the powers in principle, ahead of them being handed out.

As the county council’s cabinet agreed to hand out the new powers on Tuesday, its interim monitoring officer Steve Jorden said ‘checks and balances’ were in place to stop councils from using them in a heavy handed manner.

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Before they can be used environmental health officers need to gather evidence to show there is a serious risk to public health if a place stays open.

The council also needs to consult the police and the director of public health for their views, and weigh up the effect a closure would have on individuals and communities involved.

Oxfordshire’s Covid-19 Health Protection Board will oversee any shutdown decisions which do take place.

The measures are also temporary and must be reviewed after seven days.