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Pest control and COVID-19 – a managing director’s story…

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Our financial year ended on the 31 January 2020 with over 30% turnover growth over the previous year…profits had also grown accordingly…a company that we had bought in Bristol the previous year was ready to start being developed, plans for the company to achieve platinum accreditation with Investors in People were in hand and our hopes for the coming year were looking very rosy indeed…

Throughout February 2020 there had many murmurings about this flu-like virus that was doing the rounds in Asia…nothing more than a bad cold seemed to be the mantra that was being said…I was supposed to have had a holiday last October, but unfortunately my sister had developed dementia and I had to find her a suitable care home and start the process of selling her house. In the second week of February I said to my partner that a holiday was needed, and we duly found a two-centre Caribbean holiday in Grenada and Bequia. We had a management meeting on Tuesday 3rd March and various jokes were still being bandied around about this virus…I went away the next day, which seemed to be the catalyst for all hell to break loose in the UK with toilet roll shortages (there were no shortages in the little Caribbean supermarkets, which I was only too happy to send back Facebook statuses about), social distancing, and the need for disinfecting office door handles and telephones…I returned to work on Friday 20th March and Boris announced the lockdown on the following Monday.

We immediately told all staff to stay at home while the management teams began getting advice and planned how to work during the lockdown. We unfortunately had three new members of staff who had started work on 1st March and so were not eligible for furlough – their contracts had to be immediately terminated. We arranged with our computer and communications companies to ensure that that essential administration staff and managers could log into our desktops remotely and that telephone calls could be handled efficiently. Our PR and website teams went into rapid action getting out messages to our customers.

Our trade association, the British Pest Control Association, had been working very hard in the background to ensure that we had the correct and most up-to-date advice, and they were lobbying the Government to make pest control a key worker industry – and they were successful. Once we had an understanding of what we could and could not do, we stopped all routine pest prevention work at non-essential properties. We asked for furlough volunteers and achieved the 55% of staff we needed in this way (we also had some staff with medical conditions, who had received Government letters instructing them to isolate for 12 weeks). Our service management team worked hard to ensure that full personal protective equipment (PPE) stocks were being held by all working staff.

It soon became clear to us that, for many domestic properties, what would normally be an annoyance was suddenly a serious problem. I suppose our perspectives changes when we are stuck indoors for 23 hours a day. While we can normally ignore a few clothes moths flying around in the morning before work and just as you go to bed, when you are seeing them all day, or you constantly hear squirrels or rats in your loft, this can become an issue that will affect mental health.

To protect our employees and comply with social distancing guidance, we trained all our working service staff to conduct full risk assessment questionnaires before entering any property. This covered areas such as social distancing and whether anyone in the property had shown COVID-19 symptoms. If they had, we could not treat the property. In addition, all visits had to be via prior appointment and full PPE had to be worn on all sites. As business owners, our primary concern has to be the health and safety of our staff, customers, all our families, and the communities in which we operate.

The Government furlough money was processed very quickly for our April pay run. We have been told that we have been accepted for a business continuity loan which will secure our business for the next 12 months. We are awaiting the local authority rates grant which again we have been told has been authorised.

As an industry we are very much a hidden service until there is a problem. Most people do not realise that every office block, every factory, every trading estate has a preventive pest control contract in order to stop a problem occurring.  Over 75% of our work is prevention rather than cure. By way of example, the food production industry cannot work without effective pest control and, in hospitals, there would be a far greater risk of disease if we were not controlling rats, mice, cockroaches and pest birds. As the lockdown eases, we are getting more and more calls about mice who have obviously been enjoying our peaceful empty offices and shops – especially where food was left on desks and in drawers!

As the weeks go on, we are slowly bringing back staff to carry out essential services and to answer telephone enquiries. We are not out of the woods yet, and there may still be some hard decisions to make in the coming weeks, but there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel and it is no longer an oncoming train!