In times like these we remember just how connected we all are, and how much we depend on each other. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that, despite our differences, most of us want others to be safe and are happy to do our bit. It has also shown how much we value the institutions and professionals who are working so hard to protect us.

At Unchecked, we think our public bodies do amazing work keeping us safe in every area of life – looking out for our health, for our rights at work, for the safety of our families and for our natural environment. This web of public protectors, often unseen, are our country’s immune system.

We’re speaking to public protectors about the vital work they do, and the changes they’re seeing as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Photo of Rob Couch, environmental health advisor

Alison Farrar is Lead Officer for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, Lead Officer for Trading Standards in Wales, and an investigator in National Trading Standards teams.

She is currently leading a specialist team, dealing with estate and letting agents in the UK.

“We enforce laws which protect tenants from hidden fees and excessive deposits. Over the last few weeks my time has been taken up by how Covid-19 affects these things, tracking down virtual viewing scams and dealing with queries about what people can and can’t be charged for.

“Are students who have paid a years’ rent for university halls going to get their money back, for example?”

Alison also works closely with the National Trading Standards Scams team.

“We call them scams, but they’re really crimes. We deal with mass marketing scams that come by letter, huge numbers of text and emails scams, copycat websites, the links that look like they come from HMRC or the police. These criminals are so clever and so sophisticated.

“I do quite a bit for Trading Standard Wales on different projects – we have a project coming up on illegal puppy imports and puppy farms, and some work streams around counterfeit goods and knives being sold to underage children. All of this stuff is being put to one side because of the crisis, but it’s still going on out there, criminals are still working, and we still need to be out there fighting this.”

“If it wasn’t for our guys, none of these new designs of masks, visors, PPE or hand santitiser would be able to be released.”

The Covid-19 crisis has meant a lot of extra responsibilities for Trading Standards Officers. As well as weeding out scams and criminals, they are helping legitimate businesses make sure their products are safe and supporting vulnerable people.

“It’s just crazy for Trading Standards Officers at the moment, because our public protection work still needs to go on, and now obviously there’s more to do – helping out with running a food bank or doing deliveries to vulnerable people as well. So it’s very hard work at the moment.

“If it wasn’t for our guys, none of these new designs of masks, visors, PPE or hand santitiser would be able to be released, because Trading Standards Officers are the ones checking that these new manufacturers popping up all over the place are actually making things to the right specifications, and that they’re safe to use.

“I’ve got colleagues who came across some people selling counterfeit goods before Covid-19– and now the next thing they’re doing is selling masks that they’ve put together from old clothes in the house, and saying they’re safe.

“There are a lot of scams going on at the moment: it’s in the news that the police have stopped people selling counterfeit Covid-19 testing kits. People may be buying these and getting a false negative result, and then going on with their lives as normal. That’s really quite dangerous.”

“If people knew what we are stepping in and doing now, it would blow their minds.”

Although Trading Standards Officers’ work affects many areas of people’s everyday lives, it often goes unseen.

“Obviously we’re not doing it for the recognition, but you do sometimes think that people have no clue what we do at the best of times, and if people knew what we are stepping in and doing now, it would blow their minds.

“People don’t realise that when you go and buy things, or fill your car up with petrol, or go to the pub for a drink, it’s the work of Trading Standards Officers that allows you to do that, because they’ve done all the checks which allow that business to sell products safely and legally. It’s down to us to intercept dangerous products, like dummies for babies with all sorts of choking hazards being sold through Facebook.

“Much of the work we do is behind the scenes, so people don’t know that Trading Standards Officers do all of this, but what we do is so desperately important, we should be out there shouting from the rooftops.”

Cuts and a lack of resources are perennial problems for public protection bodies across the board – and Alison tells us that Trading Standards is no different.

“There’s always a resource problem for Trading Standards. I think Trading Standards departments need to get better at gathering and presenting intelligence to decision makers who control our funding, so that we can prove why and where we need the money. Surely it’s a no-brainer to put resources into the preventative work of Trading Standards, to help take the burden off the health system, for example.

“I know that there trade-offs between things like library closures, but I think that, if asked, most people would agree that avoiding another Grenfell or major food crisis is a top priority.”

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