Measures making it easier for food businesses to operate as takeaways during the COVID-19 pandemic led to issues around food hygiene, according to scientists.

Researchers analyzed the effect COVID-19 had on the North East hot food takeaway industry in England. Findings were published in the journal Perspectives in Public Health.

In March 2020, the government introduced temporary legislation which enabled pubs and restaurants to trade as takeaways without applying for planning permission. However, they were required to inform their local authority of a start and end date for the change. 

Researchers found most businesses were not telling the local council of their uptake of the new regulations and there did not appear to be a formal consistent procedure.

Relaxed measures had implications on hygiene, food waste, and capacity as local authorities struggled to identify businesses operating a takeaway service.

Lack of awareness and tackling backlog
A focus group and interviews were conducted between January and March 2021 with 15 professionals from seven North East local authorities. Teesside University’s research team worked with public health professionals, environmental health officers and planners from across the region to examine public health issues associated with the temporary legislation.

They found that while most businesses did not inform their local authority they were trading as a takeaway, this was considered a low priority because of the circumstances.

Food hygiene was identified as an issue as there was too much going on that authorities were not aware of, and some businesses were diversifying without the necessary skills. Having the necessary insurance to do food deliveries was another potential problem.

Professionals were worried about public health and regulating a large backlog of hot food takeaway providers who could have been operating for well over a year. 

Alongside the new regulations was an increase in takeaways trading from home kitchens. There were concerns about the situation post regulations as to who is responsible for ensuring restaurants stop their additional trade as takeaways as well as the backlog of food hygiene inspections.

Because of uncertainty around the number of hot food outlets operating as takeaways and ongoing capacity issues, researchers found high levels of unease among professionals in the North East. 

“It is clear that the pandemic led to an unprecedented demand for takeaway food and the changes in legislation made it much easier for businesses to diversify and trade under different circumstances,” said Amelia Lake, from Teesside University, who led the research.

“We have been looking at the longer-term impacts of these changes and how they may have impacted public health. This has given us important insight and does suggest that making it easier for businesses to trade and move to takeaway options does not come without risk and can have long-lasting public health outcomes.”

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