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Coronavirus: Environment Agency update

The Environment Agency’s priority is to protect people and the environment, and to support those we regulate during the coronavirus pandemic.

2 EA staff members working 2 metres apart to comply with social distancing

Environment Agency work continues in line with government guidance, including social distancing

We are aware communities, businesses and the environment rely on our services. This includes the advice and guidance we offer, our regulatory work which continues to protect the environment, people and wildlife from harm, managing the risks of flooding and coastal erosion, and other roles.

We will continue to review the situation in light of further advice from the government and will update you accordingly. In the meantime, we remind you to check the government’s guidance at www.gov.uk/coronavirus.

Our staff

We remain fully operational, with the majority of our staff working from home. Our remaining frontline teams will be active, where necessary, on the ground tackling priority issues such as flood risk and pollution. All staff, wherever they are working, are following PHE guidance to reduce their risk of either transmitting or contracting coronavirus.

Maintaining, operating and repairing our assets is essential to ensure they work when required. Our work will continue where it remains safe to do so and activities comply with PHE advice.

We are also ensuring our contractors are aware of site and people restrictions and are following the correct procedures.

Offices

The Environment Agency closed most of its offices in March 2020. We continue to reopen our offices at a reduced capacity, in line with our health and safety plans.

To check the status of your local office contact enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk

Our flood defence work

Our flood defence work continues in line with PHE guidance and where it is safe. We are ready to respond to flooding. During coronavirus we continue to maintain and operate our flood and coastal defences to ensure they protect people and property from flooding. We’re also maintaining our assets that support public water supply, industry, infrastructure, food production and the environment.

Where work continues, we have ensured that everyone involved has been trained on social distancing and will not put anyone at risk. If the work cannot be done safely, the work will stop.

We are also still carrying out inspections and repairs to flood defences damaged by spring storms. We are prioritising our work that has the most impact in terms of protecting lives and livelihoods, including prioritising the most at-risk communities so they can remain resilient. If repairs to major infrastructure assets are disrupted by the impact of coronavirus, we will where possible put in place temporary mitigation for the risk, pending a full repair.

All our work is impacted by the controls we and government have put in place. This is likely to mean that completion dates for new projects will slip and other key activities may take place at less regular intervals. We are keeping communities informed of any delays and the action that we are taking to minimise them.

Flood warning service

Continuing to protect lives and livelihoods through our flood warning service remains fundamental to our work as the nation continues to deal with the effects of coronavirus. In order to protect our flood warning service during this difficult time, we have made some minor changes to the service.

In order to safeguard this essential service we will be focussing on the most important warnings, where flooding is expected or where there is a risk to life. We will continue to issue our lowest level of flood warnings – flood alerts - where there is a need to take action but will temporarily stop issuing them where they indicate that there is a very low likelihood of flooding taking place. Our teams will continue to work around the clock to ensure that people have the early warning and safety advice they need to stay safe.

Our regulatory role

Our frontline staff have returned to near normal regulatory work, such as compliance and enforcement.

Physical inspections remain a key part of regulation, but we also gather intelligence remotely, analyse data and assess performance. Used together, these activities provide us with a comprehensive picture from which we can assess regulatory compliance.

We have clearly set out our approach to regulation and enforcement during the coronavirus outbreak, and have published a series of temporary regulatory position statements (RPSs).

RPSs are nationally-applicable public statements that, provided certain circumstances and conditions are met, allow specified activity to be carried out without complying with a particular regulatory requirement. RPSs allow a degree of flexibility while still ensuring regulatory standards are maintained to protect people and the environment. They include clear conditions regarding standards that must be adhered to.

We have recently reviewed the ongoing need for the remaining COVID-19 RPSs. Some have been extended or replaced with new RPSs and some have now expired. Anyone using a COVID-19 RPS is responsible for checking their status.

We will continue to review the need for RPSs over the autumn and winter and will consider reinstating previously expired RPSs should the need arise.

Across the country, our teams continue to undertake investigations into environmental offending and prepare legal cases. We will consider the appropriate regulatory response to any unavoidable non-compliance in accordance with our policies and guidance on regulation and enforcement.

Coronavirus is not an excuse to operate illegally. We make clear in our approach to regulation and enforcement during the coronavirus that we expect operators to take all reasonable steps to comply with regulatory requirements using contingency plans to help them comply.

We’re also continuing to work with the police to share intelligence about criminal activity and take action against those breaking the law.

We absolutely recognise the added financial strain coronavirus is putting on businesses and have written to all our customers to invite them to contact us to discuss payment options if they experience difficulties.

Applying for a permit

We are aware of delays to our permitting service and apologise for any inconvenience this is causing to our impacted customers. As we adapted to the impacts of Coronavirus, our ability to determine permit and licence applications was reduced. This is on top of a high number of applications that we were and are continuing to receive - we are currently receiving over 1000 applications each month.

The majority of our permitting activities are now progressing well. We have brought in additional trained staff from other areas of the business to help clear the delays and we are ensuring we deal with permit applications relating to critical projects.

We will continue to work with customers at the pre-application stage, on receipt of applications and provide updates through to the determination of the permit. We are also continuing to speak to trade bodies, industry forums and sector groups to keep them informed and updated.

We are currently prioritising applications over reviewing existing permits. We will pick up the review work as soon as possible. We will continue to provide updates on the situation via this page.

Bathing water sampling

The Environment Agency has resumed sampling at designated bathing waters in July following government advice on easing lockdown restrictions.

Routine bathing water sampling was suspended before the start of the 2020 bathing season as the Environment Agency followed government guidelines to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Throughout lockdown, regulatory work has continued to maintain the quality of bathing waters, which remains of a high standard in England.

The latest classifications for all designated bathing waters in England can be found on our water quality website.

Our daily pollution risk forecasting service, which is the best way for bathers to get the latest information on water quality, has been providing updates throughout lockdown. This year the system has been upgraded to provide even more accurate forecasts of when a temporary reduction in water quality is likely. For information on pollution risk forecasts and warnings visit our website.

Angling and our fisheries

In line with government guidance, the Environment Agency had to pause a number of non-critical field based fisheries activities such as improving habitats for fish, facilities for anglers and restocking. Following the further easing of lockdown restrictions, we have restarted this field based fisheries work, including fisheries enforcement, to help protect and maintain fisheries and the environment.

We continue to prioritise our response to reported incidents of harm to the environment, subject to local conditions. Illegal fishing, pollution and incidents that harm the environment should be reported to our 24-hour hotline on 0800 80 70 60.

Our waterways

People have been enjoying trips out on the water but must keep to the latest government guidelines, social distancing and check for any local changes with the navigation authority.

Everyone should follow government guidance on social mixing outside of household groups. The government confirmed that there will be no specific restrictions on waterways businesses from 4 July. This will help boat owners and hire boat businesses including private leisure craft, commercial hire boats and hotel boats. Boating operators are responsible for conducting a risk assessment drawing on the relevant sources of government guidance on COVID-19, available at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19

The Environment Agency is the navigation authority for rivers and waterways across the south and east of England. There has been a high level of interest in water sports and waterside activity since restrictions were lifted on 1 June. We welcome more members of the public wanting to enjoy the water environment. Both powered and unpowered craft need to register with the navigation authority.

To adhere to social distancing there are some changes to the way Environment Agency staff typically provide services and some things may take longer or take up more space than normal, for example at locks and doing routine maintenance. At the majority of sites we are still maintaining 2-metre social distancing to reduce the need for either customers or staff to take additional precautions. Local information on signs or from staff will provide more detailed advice on new ways of navigating rivers and canals safely. We recommend that all boaters wear lifejackets and allow more time for your journey.

The Environment Agency has written to boating and navigation groups regularly throughout the Coronavirus pandemic to provide updates on lockdown restrictions and changes on their waterways: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/environment-agency-waterways-coronavirus-covid-19-update.

Water safety

As the government eases restrictions on movement caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the public has been warned to keep safe around rivers and canals. For advice about the dangers of wild swimming, follow guidance from police, Public Health England, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Their messages are clear: vigilance can save lives, and water-related accidents can be avoided by knowing how to stay safe.

The Environment Agency, which manages many locks, weirs and bridges across England, wants people to remember the hazards under the water in rivers while spending time with friends and family. People should not to jump or dive into water and stay away from weirs, locks and pipes. There can be unseen hazards in the water, cold-water shock can affect even strong swimmers on warm days and social distancing must be continued to protect the public, staff and boaters. Keep a look out for boat traffic. Boaters, especially on larger vessels, can find it very hard to spot swimmers.

Restarting your private sewage treatment plant

We have provided guidance to a range of industry bodies covering hospitality businesses including pubs, restaurants, hotels, camping and caravan sites and theme parks confirming the need for private sewage treatment plants to be made ready to be used again following a period of shutdown or low flows.

It comes as many pubs and other hospitality businesses re-open.

Sewage treatment plants use living microorganisms in biological treatment processes to remove pollutants from sewage effluent before it is discharged into the environment. The sudden restart of a sewage treatment plant or an increase of flows into it following a relaxation of COVID-19 business shutdown rules will very likely result in the discharge of poor quality effluent unless steps are taken by operators of sewage treatment plants to prepare them for increased flows beforehand.

Environmental impacts must be minimised when operators restart their sewage treatment plants. Those who discharge poor quality effluent risk being in breach of their environmental permits or the General Binding Rules if their discharges cause pollution of surface water or groundwater.

Operators need to take steps to ensure that their treatment plant is able to operate effectively as flows into it increase after their businesses reopen.

Those unaccustomed to restarting, should seek technical advice and support from:

  • whoever normally maintains their sewage treatment plant
  • the manufacturer or supplier of their treatment plant
  • a competent sewage treatment plant maintenance engineer

As well as ensuring that their sewage treatment plant is ready to receive increased flows, operators must also check that any pre-treatment equipment such as fats, oils and grease (FOG) traps are ready to be used again. Operators should also avoid sending excessive amounts of chemicals and cleaning products to their sewage treatment plant as they can inhibit and harm biological treatment processes. They should also ensure any contaminated drainage from washing and cleaning does not drain to surface water sewers, water courses or groundwater or cause pollution.

Operators of premises served by their own sewage treatment plant wanting to dispose of waste beer should find other means of disposal. They should seek further guidance from the British Beer and Pub Association and refer to the waste hierarchy which is available on GOV.UK.

Billing

The Environment Agency recognises that some customers will be particularly affected by the measures to restrict the impact of the virus. We will consider requests for payment plans if customers experience difficulties paying bills on time. Income from fees and charges ensures the Environment Agency can continue to provide an appropriate level of regulation and services for our customers to ensure the environment and people are protected.

Customer contacts

During this pandemic the Environment Agency continues to protect people and the environment, working alongside our partners. Please report any pollution incidents on 0800 80 70 60 and stay #floodaware.

General enquiries

National Customer Contact Centre

Email: enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk

Telephone: 03708 506 506

PO Box 544 Rotherham S60 1BY United Kingdom

Published 2 June 2020
Last updated 30 September 2020 + show all updates
  1. Our regulatory role section updated.

  2. Our offices and Applying for a permit sections updated.

  3. Offices and applying for a permit sections updated.

  4. Sections on bathing water sampling and angling updated.

  5. Section on bathing water updated.

  6. New section on water safety added.

  7. Section on waterways updated and new section added for restarting private sewage treatment plants.

  8. Updates added to permit applications, angling and waterways.

  9. First published.