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Vacant and unoccupied premises during COVID-19

Temporary closure – managing the risk

Property|Risk Management Consulting

April 29, 2020

By assessing risk and understanding the hazards presented, you can put practical and proportionate controls in place.

Property risk engineering

Insurers have acknowledged that these are exceptional circumstances, and many have relaxed their approach to unoccupied buildings and the precautions that property owners would ordinarily need to take. However, it’s also unusual that premises are stocked but standing empty.

Some insurers have extended the notification period for changes in circumstances to 90 days.

Please ensure you tell your broker or insurer of any material changes in advance . You should also demonstrate you’ve considered the risk and have taken proportionate and practical action.

Willis Towers Watson suggest a six-step approach:

  • Assess risk
  • Identify potential hazards
  • Implement controls
  • Maintain protection systems
  • Monitor and review
  • Establish response factors

Assessing risk

Although your business model may be the same, it’s likely there are a number of new factors you should consider, to decide on the level of protection and action necessary.

Key areas to consider:

  • Where your premises are located and what values are at risk.
  • Whether the premises can be easily compromised through intrusion or fire.
  • Number of storeys, or whether it’s a complex site.
  • Number of keyholders that might be required to attend the premises for inspection, or to carry out duties that may be required.
  • Who will carry out routine inspections and who might need access to undertake maintenance tasks and emergency callouts.
  • Whether the building has good levels of compartmentation to contain a fire.
  • What utilities are needed for the continued – but reduced – operation of the building, and what non-essential services can be isolated. It’s particularly important when considering this that the heating systems, fire detection and intruder alarm systems remain operational.
  • Existing fire and security measures to help determine what level of response might be needed. For example, having remotely monitored systems could result in less frequent visits to the premises.
  • Whether all the security measures are working correctly – there is currently no requirement to upgrade systems.
  • Whether the people expected to visit the premises understand how they work – such as setting the alarm.

Identifying potential hazards


The main hazards are likely to be arson and electrical fire.

Bins can be used to gain access to the premises and are easier to move when they’re empty. Limit this risk by storing bins away from the building or inside. Where possible chain them together.

Lighting, fencing and CCTV of the external areas should also be checked.

Ensure mail and postal deliveries are re-directed to avoid it accumulating.


To help prevent electrical fire, safely isolate non-essential building services and maintain a good level of housekeeping around electrical equipment.

Hot work

Hot work remains down to management control and it’s important that any contractor carrying out emergency repairs complies with the hot work permit system.

Water damage

To reduce the risk of water damage, maintain heating systems but consider reducing the water supply to the premises. For example, by isolating the water main at the stopcock, or at least to installed appliances and automatic toilet flushing systems.


Police who are questioning some of those few who are venturing out in vehicles may lessen the risk of theft. In addition social distancing, with less people on the street, should reduce the risk, although it is fair to say that those less likely to comply with government advice to ‘Stay Home’ may have other motives for being outside.

Remember the four D’s.

  • Deter – deter access to the site.
  • Defend – prevent access into the building.
  • Detect – limit the time spent in the building.
  • Delay – put measures in place to delay the removal of property.

Maintain protection systems

All protection systems will need to be maintained and operational.

Key questions to ask:

  • Are protection systems remotely operated?
  • What happens if they activate?
  • Are faults logged remotely?
  • Are sprinkler systems fully operational and all valves open?
  • Are security intruder alarms and CCTV systems working correctly?

Fire safety

The current recommendation from the National Fire Chiefs Council is to adopt a risk-based approach to testing.1 Depending on the action taken, it may need to be recorded as a significant finding.

Seek guidance and advice from the Fire and Rescue Service if they are your primary authority on fire safety.

Response Factors


Inspections should continue to be carried out to ensure the building remains sound and secure. The frequency of these inspections may vary following your own assessment of risk and any restrictions in place.

Keyholder details

Keyholder details should be reviewed, and cross-checked with those held by alarm monitoring companies.

Lone working

Assess the implications of lone working and understand the expectations of the inspections. Visits should be logged and include photographic evidence. Consider producing a check-sheet for attendance.


There should be clear instructions around escalation procedures.

Managing contractors

Managing contractor access may require different attendee duties, especially for emergency work. One way to manage this would be via a rota system. The final risk assessment should be updated to reflect any significant changes.

Monitor and review

As with any assessment, monitoring and reviewing is essential. Concentrate and prioritise actions on the most vulnerable sites, whilst also maintaining an overview and control of the remaining parts of the estate. 

Consider existing resources and any additional measures that may be needed if key staff are absent from work. 

It remains important to keep your broker and your insurer fully informed of any event or changes that may have a material baring on the risk.


Each applicable policy of insurance must be reviewed to determine the extent, if any, of coverage for COVID-19. Coverage may vary depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances. For global client programs it is critical to consider all local operations and how policies may or may not include COVID-19 coverage.

The information contained herein is not intended to constitute legal or other professional advice and should not be relied upon in lieu of consultation with your own legal and/or other professional advisors. Some of the information in this publication may be compiled by third party sources we consider to be reliable, however we do not guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of such information. We assume no duty in contract, tort, or otherwise in connection with this publication and expressly disclaim, to the fullest extent permitted by law, any liability in connection with this publication. Willis Towers Watson offers insurance-related services through its appropriately licensed entities in each jurisdiction in which it operates.

COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving situation and changes are occurring frequently. The information given in this publication is believed to be accurate at the date of publication shown at the top of this document. This information may have subsequently changed or have been superseded, and should not be relied upon to be accurate or suitable after this date.

Willis Towers Watson is a trading name of Willis Limited, Registered number: 181116 England and Wales. Registered address: 51 Lime Street, London EC3M 7DQ. A Lloyd’s Broker. Authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority for its general insurance mediation activities only




Kelvyn Sampson
GB Industry Lead- Retail, Leisure and Hospitality

Risk Management Executive - Property Risk Engineering

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