Businesses around Herne Hill station have started a petition against their “persecution” by Lambeth council Covid officers.
One of them is The Flower Lady, run by Elaine White and, ironically, used by the council in street banners promoting its Covid policies.
The petition calls for signatures “to make those, who can make a difference at Lambeth council to wake up and listen to the people”.
It says that “officials have been hiding in doorways, harassing and preying on small business owners, even going to the extent of taking pictures of their loyal customers while they click and collect.”
Elaine White says her problems with council Covid enforcement officers began in February and are still continuing.
She says local traders are being fined not for actual breaches of rules about social distancing or facilities, but for not have the correct sign displayed on a window or door.
Initially, she says, council staff told her she had “nothing to worry about”.
But then she found that she was being photographed along with visitors, including her son, who were not customers.
“They creep up during work when we’re not expecting them,” she says.
And Elaine contrasts the close and personal attention focused on her and other small traders to an apparent easygoing approach to the Sunday market that takes place in front of them each week, with hundreds of visitors unmasked and up close to each other.
She stopped trading on Sundays because of the difficulties caused by the market – only to find on one Sunday that the boxes on which she displays her flowers and plants were being used for a picnic by people who were not challenged by officials.
“What would have happened if that had been me and my helpers?” she asks.
She has taken it upon herself to borrow plastic barriers to signal that this should not be happening.
Elaine says that the council officers not only conceal themselves – apparently to wait for a technical breach of regulations to happen – but are also unfriendly and uncommunicative.
One, when asked for their name, replied: “You address us as a team, not as an individual”.
She says reassurances from senior staff and councillors have not stopped her problems.
Other traders who have signed the petition have also explained their support for it.
“Mine and Elaine’s experience of being fined by Lambeth has been really odd to say the least – totally inconsistent, overzealous approach to enforcement of the guidelines,” said one.
“We’re sitting ducks basically, I have two pending fines. They won’t tell customers to move along and not to crowd. We stopped doing click and collect when they were around.
“I literally closed up when I saw them … life’s stressful enough,” said another.
Another trader goes into detail about their experience: “The shop was closed for my break. I was cooking, but I ran late in opening at 4.30 so, when I saw it was 4.37, I decided to still open the door.
“As soon as I did and went to wash my hands, these two people entered.
“I called out to them that I will be with them, but took a bit of time – as I said, I was cooking and the food needed attention.
“So when I came in front flustered for having kept them waiting, I apologised and asked them for their order.
“They then informed me that they were Covid marshals.
“I said: ‘I should be rating five stars, because I have everything in place, all signs, liquids, shields, mask, including one around my neck but, not on because I have been cooking’.
“They said: ‘Well done, but there is no sign on my door to inform customers’.
“I pointed out that I have two signs facing the glass door, therefore customers can see them before and after entry.
“But they said I still have to have one on the door.
“I did not argue or take offence. I put a sign on the door as soon as I came in next morning.
“Nevertheless, a few weeks later, I received a letter from Lambeth council – even though I am paying my rates to Southwark council – informing warning me that I had endangered my staff because I did not have on a mask on and that, should I breach the Covid rules again, I will be fined £1,000.
“There was no other human in my premises at that time, so I do not know which staff I had endangered.
“Second, I was in the middle of cooking and, third, my counters are so high that they were more than two metres away from me.
“To me, they are making things up, to enable them to have a job.
“We all [traders] need to prove that there is no reason for this heavy-handed attitude, that they need to go and actually do the job they are hired for, rather than harassing us
“I hope that we can have the support of our councillors in this matter.”
And so does Elaine who has another issue for the council. She says that she was not asked for her permission for the use of her image on the council’s street banners.