The man in charge of preventing Covid outbreaks in Cornwall's work places has stressed: "We’re not Big Brother, we’re here to help!"

He also warned of the impact that the virus continues to have on health services, saying that there had been the equivalent of one or two wards of patients with Covid at the Royal Cornwall Hospital since June, with deaths still happening every week, and adding: "There’s definitely a lack of awareness of just how much pressure the hospital and health system is under now."

When lockdown restrictions ended in May, battered businesses across Cornwall breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed back customers with open arms.

But a turbulent summer of high Covid-19 cases meant many were forced to close almost as quickly as they had reopened as staff took time off sick or to self-isolate.

Here, public health practitioner and case review team lead at Cornwall Council, Lee Evans, talks about the toll this has taken on employers and their staff and urges them to seek support from the Council if needed.

He also warns that everyone will need to stay vigilant this winter to stop Covid – as well as norovirus and flu – putting even more pressure on traders, hospitals and the healthcare system.

“The impact of Covid on businesses has been huge,” said Lee, whose team analyses daily virus statistics, identifies at-risk employers and then offers advice on Covid safety to prevent or control workplace outbreaks.

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Lee Evans

“A lot of them were surprised at just how quickly it spread through their workforce. You’d speak to a bar owner in the morning and they’d have identified maybe four cases, but by the afternoon that would be six and then the next morning they’d have nine. At that point they’d have so many staff isolating due to either being a positive case or a close contact that they’d have to close.

“A business closing can have a huge impact, not only financially but also in terms of people’s mental health and things like food security, when people have to access food banks.”

While carrying out its enquiries, the case review team has spoken to workers with harrowing stories, including some undergoing chemotherapy with no access to medication or food, and pregnant women unable to buy nappies or baby food.

“We spoke to one chap, a migrant worker, who was down to his last onion – that’s all he had left to eat,” said Lee. “So we arranged for him to have medication and food delivered. We always look to help where we can and signpost people to the right services or financial support.”

He added: “When we call, businesses often think we just want to close them down but in reality I don’t think we’ve closed a single one. We’ve advised some to cut back on their operations but we want to help them stay open. We’re not Big Brother, we’re here to help!

“Many of them underestimated the impact that Covid can have on a workforce. They have their plans in place but when it hits it can prove very difficult to manage.

“For us it’s about trying to get the balance right between protecting public health and keeping the economy going.”

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The pandemic has caused a significant headache for large and small businesses alike, but smaller operations have been particularly affected, according to Lee.

This was especially true in tourism hotspots such as Newquay, Falmouth and St Ives over the summer.

Lee said his team’s aim was always to help support a business by identifying weaknesses in its Covid defences, giving advice on hygiene and cleaning, and sometimes sending experts in to help.

“If you take the example of a large food producer, if they close then the impact isn’t just on the business, it’s on the community too,” he said. “Any hiccup in production can lead to empty shelves, which of course can then lead to panic buying. “It’s harder for smaller businesses though as they have a much lower threshold for when they stop functioning. Larger employers can use agency staff too to fill any gaps, and small hospitality businesses tend to have younger staff who were last to be offered the vaccine and more likely to be out partying.”

When times are tough, there have also been some who look to bend the rules to stay open.

“Some have deliberately misinterpreted the rules, shall we say, especially when it comes to staff who should be self-isolating,” added Lee, whose team has spoken to more than 450 businesses since June. “You speak to them and you know they know, and they know you know they know!”

Businesses have generally been more reluctant to engage with Lee’s team since the rules changed in August, meaning contacts of positive cases no longer have to self-isolate if they are under 18 or double-jabbed, he said.

With more flexibility when it comes to staffing, some employers are happy to go it alone.

“There’s a feeling of ‘we just have to learn to live with it now’,” said Lee. “But a lot of businesses are still conscientious and are saying to us ‘we are not changing what we are doing’, which is great.”

He added: “There’s definitely a lack of awareness of just how much pressure the hospital and health system is under now. There’s been the equivalent of one or two wards of patients at Treliske with Covid since June and sadly there are deaths every week but many people don’t realise this. They don’t realise how delicately balanced the system is.”

As the October half-term holiday and winter approach, new threats also begin to emerge that could put even more pressure on businesses and healthcare providers, namely seasonal respiratory infections such as flu and the winter vomiting bug known as norovirus. “They’re lurking!” said Lee. “Last winter with lockdowns and social distancing we got away with it but we’re likely to see them come back with a vengeance now. Flu kills thousands of people every year and has similar symptoms to Covid, which makes things difficult, and norovirus isn’t fun at any point.

“If you add ward closures due to flu and norovirus to the effect of Covid, and then factor in increasing admissions to our acute trusts and disruption to bed availability within our care homes and community hospitals then there is a huge squeeze on the system; there’s no wriggle room at all. It’s not scaremongering, it’s being realistic.”

The best advice for businesses, residents and visitors is to keep their guard up and keep following the guidance that everyone now knows inside out.

Businesses are also advised to revisit their risk assessments and keep planning for worst case scenarios.

“All the things we’ve learned to do with Covid we need to carry on doing as they are equally relevant to flu and norovirus,” said Lee. “So, we need to remember hands, face, space, social distancing, meet outside when you can, ventilate areas as best as possible and the usual cold and flu etiquette of covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and washing your hands afterwards. And don’t forget your flu jab, your Pneumococcal jab, if applicable, and your booster Covid jab if you are offered one!

“It’s these little things that can help to go a long way to protecting us.”

As for Lee and his team, they will continue to monitor the situation for workplaces across Cornwall – and will always be there to offer support to businesses that need it.

“We don’t know what the future holds but Covid is sticking around so we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” he said. For more information on coronavirus in Cornwall visit and for more on support available for businesses visit Contact with any public health enquiries