Wisbech mayor faces five day wait to discover his fate after licensing review following allegations of covid-19 breaches at his pub
Fenland's environmental health team have been accused of using a "sledge hammer" to crack a nut during a five hour hearing into alleged breaches of covid rules at a Wisbech pub.
The review hearing called by Fenland District Council's environmental health department into the allegations against publican and Wisbech mayor Aigars Balsevics at his Angel Inn premises lasted for over five and a half hours today (Monday).
The hearing went ahead despite a plea by David Dadds, the legal representative for Mr Balsevics and pub owners Elgood's Brewery, for a four week adjournment to give them time to call witnesses and properly analyse CCTV evidence and also called for it to be heard privately.
Announcing the committee's decision Councillor Michael Humphrey, chair, said they considered there had been adequate time for Mr Dadds to consider the CCTV footage, adding the hearing would go on in public "in the interests of governance and clarity and in consideration of the amount of public interest".
But despite the meeting lasting all day Mr Balsevics will still have to wait up to five days to find out whether or not he could lose his licence as a result of the allegations against him, which included customers socialising by hugging, kissing and play wrestling, helping themselves to alcohol from behind the bar, a lack of hand sanitising and failing to serve a 'susbstantial' meal on Christmas Eve.
After listening to all the evidence and watching CCTV footage captured at the Alexandra Road pub on December 24, the committee decided there was too much information and they needed more time to consider their determination.
The CCTV footage was shown to the committee privately amid concerns airing it publicly would breach data protection rules.
The hearing heard from PC Justin Bielawski, one of the police officers who attended the pub after reports the Angel Inn was allegedly hosting a private party for a local football club on Christmas Eve.
He described seeing customers moving about the pub without face coverings, and referred to seeing a large quantity of glasses on tables. He also told how the front door to the pub was locked when he turned up at around 8.56pm and had to wait five minutes to be let in by Mr Balsevics.
PC Bielawski reported concerns about activities at the pub that evening to his licensing officer, who requested the pub's CCTV footage. Those concerns and the CCTV footage were then passed on to Fenland's environmental health department.
Other alleged breaches included the failure of staff to wear face coverings, not washing their hands and not cleaning and disinfecting tables.
Customers were also being served at the bar, rather than seated at tables and the hearing heard Mr Balsevics was even seen hugging a woman at the end of the evening.
Among those giving evidence was Val Thomas, Cambridgeshire's deputy director for public health, who outlined why it was vital for covid rules to be followed with spiralling numbers of infections in the town and nationally in the lead up to Christmas.
Steve Fleming, the chief policy and enforcement officer for Cambridgeshire Fire, was also present and he agreed education was needed around the safety of having a locked door at the pub while it had people inside.
However, he said there were other exits available and the numbers present meant there was no serious safety breach.
Brenda Barber, a member of the public who uses the Angel Inn, gave evidence in support of Mr Balsevics, describing him as a "conscientious" landlord and praising the pub for its diversity and unofficial role as a 'community hub'.
Environmental health officer Trevor Darnes, who drew up the report against Mr Balsevics found himself under fire from Mr Dadds, who accused him of using a "sledge hammer to crack a nut" and pointing out there had been no prior concerns about the Angel Inn and the way it was being run.
He pointed out that the alleged breaches were under health and safety legislation, but no formal police investigation had been made as a result of those allegations.
He also said Mr Balsvics had previously had meetings with environmental health to go through the procedures he needed to open under covid restrictions and that his precautions, outlined in a risk assessment, were deemed sufficient by officers.
But Mr Darnes hit back stating a licence review hearing had been considered the best way to deal with the allegations. He outlined the breaches in more detail and pointed out that Mr Balsevics was present for most of the afternoon and evening and would have seen the breaches for himself, but had not intervened.
Mr Dadds explained the pub's door had been locked in a bid to limit numbers in the pub and vehemently denied it was a private party pointing out there was no music, DJ or dancing.
"It was not much of a party," he said, adding there was a diverse mix of people present.
He also pointed out that Mr Balsevics had acted "instinctively" when he hugged a woman at the end of the night saying she had gone to hug him and he had simply reacted.
As for the mingling of customers and lack of social distancing Mr Dadds argued that it was not unlike a supermarket where customers stop and chat without remaining two metres apart - which he said was difficult to police.
He said with the benefit of hindsight there should have been another member of staff on duty to help maintain social distancing and said that would be the case in future..
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing," he said.
He urged the committee not to take away the licence but instead called for their determination to be measured and argued that a letter of advice or a short period of suspension would be sufficient, bearing in mind the lack of previous problems with Mr Balsevics as a licence holder.
"It is not about punishment, but about looking forward," he said, pointing out there had been no complaints from the public about the Angel Inn or Mr Balsevics, but there had been a petition and tens and tens of letters of support for him.