What it’s like to be on the forgotten frontline of the Covid crisis

Rosa SilvermanThu, 1 April 2021, 2:47 pm

Claire Saunders, store manager of a supermarket in Essex, received verbal abuse just for trying to enforce the rules during the pandemic - Daniel Jones for The Telegraph
Claire Saunders, store manager of a supermarket in Essex, received verbal abuse just for trying to enforce the rules during the pandemic – Daniel Jones for The Telegraph

The Great British Easter weekend traditionally brings us out of our homes, not only to gardens and the countryside, but also to the shops. Suddenly, we discover our collective appetite for unseasonal barbecues and overly ambitious DIY projects. We urgently need a leg of lamb to roast, Easter eggs for all the children we might be at risk of encountering, and enough wine to get us through it all.

This year will be no different, as the country rushes gratefully towards something more like normality than anything we’ve experienced in a while. And as we head to the supermarket to stock up, we’ll probably pay little heed to those manning the checkouts and shop floors. They’ll just be there as always, quietly doing their job.

Many shop workers, however, have had the roughest of rides this past year, receiving torrents of abuse for attempting to enforce the various pandemic rules.

Claire Saunders, manager of a small supermarket in Romford, Essex, is among those regularly exposed to shoppers’ wrath and frustration. “I got called a f—— c— just for asking someone to wait outside until someone else had left,” says the 40-year-old.

Similar has happened when she has politely reminded customers to stick to the one-way system in-store, designed to make the shop safer during the Covid crisis. “You get a mouthful of abuse, people saying ‘I do what I want, I don’t care,’” she says. “During the first lockdown I walked down an aisle and there was a shoplifter putting stuff in his bag. He said ‘if you come any nearer I’ll spit on you and give you coronavirus.’”

Saunders’ experiences are far from uncommon among shop staff. Earlier this year, retail trade union Usdaw released statistics showing nearly nine in 10 shop workers were abused in 2020. Its survey of 2,729 UK shop workers found 88 per cent experienced verbal abuse, 61 per cent were threatened by a customer and nine per cent were assaulted. This, towards those who were putting their health on the line every day in customer-facing roles, while so many of us have been safely working from home.

Launching a Parliamentary inquiry into crimes against shopworkers in December, Yvette Cooper MP, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, described the increase in reported attacks and abuse during the pandemic as “appalling and unacceptable”.

She added: “The crisis has shown how important shop workers are as key workers – keeping vital services going during difficult times.”

Yet according to Saunders, the longer the pandemic has continued, the harder the job has become.

“This [past year] is the worst time I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “It’s always been there, abuse of shop workers, but Covid has heightened it. It’s provided a flashpoint for abuse. I’ve seen it all.”

Difficult customers range from young people who refuse to wear masks because they think the virus won’t harm them, to shoppers of any age who deny the existence of Covid and the need for restrictions. On the forgotten frontline of retail, shop staff are left to police it all.

Abuse isn’t all they have faced. In January, Office for National Statistics figures showed sales and retail assistants and managers, and directors in retail and wholesale, were among the occupations with the highest rates of death involving Covid. By the end of 2020, 135 workers in these positions had died with the virus in England and Wales.

But spreading it to loved ones may be an even greater worry. So anxious was Saunders about her young daughter catching Covid from her at the start of the pandemic, she routinely removed all her work clothes in the porch on arriving home, and dashed straight up to the shower. “It’s mentally draining as well,” she says. Her anxiety deepened during the second wave as case numbers in her area soared.

David Williams says it is more challenging when people don’t want to co-operate - Jay Williams
David Williams says it is more challenging when people don’t want to co-operate – Jay Williams

David Williams, who works in St James’s Dairy, his family’s independent grocery store in Ilfracombe, Devon, spent much of the year worrying about his mother. “She was at risk and should have been isolating but she’s had to work in the shop,” says the 23-year-old. “We’ve put our lives on the line. If we didn’t, we’d have no business. It’s a risk, and it’s stressful. But we’ve got people who rely on us, so we’ve got to do our best.”

He, too, has encountered difficult customers during the pandemic year. “We get abuse about once every two weeks or so. You say, ‘Can you wait outside a minute?’ and they say ‘Right, I won’t shop here.’”

In one incident, a young man who claimed he was exempt from wearing a mask started fake-coughing when challenged by Williams and another customer. “There was [another] incident where a man grabbed my crown jewels,” says Williams, 23. “He’d threatened my staff so I said ‘can you move on please?’ He said ‘are you a man?’ and grabbed me.”

In this instance, the police were called and the man was fined. Williams sighs: “It just makes challenging times more challenging when people don’t want to co-operate. When it happens, you do get upset. I would hope after this that people have more respect for the key workers. These people have carried on working while you’ve been at home watching Netflix.”

The same is true of delivery drivers, who clock up hundreds of miles a day on the roads so others can stay at home. Frontline medical staff may be seen as heroic, but those who bring us our groceries and parcels are often taken for granted. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are far less likely to receive abuse than shop workers. But it’s easy to forget our online shopping habit relies on an army of low-earning drivers criss-crossing the county to bring us whatever we fancy.

Emma Manton, 42, started a nine-month stint as a driver for delivery firm Hermes last March after her work as an actress was halted by Covid. She was paid between 55p and £2 per parcel, depending on the size, and delivered between 60 and 150 a day, around south east London. “It’s not big money,” she says. “About £50 a day was a good day.”

Still, she was glad to be working, and “on the whole people were very grateful. For some, I was the only person they would speak to all day. One thing I did find to start with was a lot of people, because I’m white and middle class, assumed I was their neighbour rather than the delivery driver.”

She used her own car, and initially spent around eight hours a day delivering 100 parcels. “By the end I had it down to about four hours so then the hourly rate feels a little better,” she says.

Nevertheless, it’s been hard for the mother of one to make ends meet on this money. “It’s been a hell of a struggle,” she says. “We had to take mortgage holidays.”

For many isolated, lonely customers, contact with delivery drivers can be a vital lifeline, however. Geoff Norris, an Asda driver from Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, knows this well. The 53-year-old father-of-two goes out of his way to help vulnerable and elderly people on his rounds, and even visited one isolated customer on Christmas Day because she wouldn’t have seen anyone else. “There are hundreds and hundreds of customers who really do appreciate it,” he says.

He is among the Asda drivers who have donned one of the supermarket’s “Happy to chat” badges, to let the lonely know they can talk to him while he’s delivering their groceries. “These people aren’t seeing anyone on a weekly, even a monthly, basis. Some say they haven’t seen anyone else except me and the postman in the past two months,” says Norris.

He is committed to the job despite his 22-year-old daughter (who lives with him) being in remission from stage 3 cancer and therefore critically at risk. He could have taken the time off. “But there was no way we were ever going to do that,” he says. “My daughter said ‘you’re a lot more use out there.’”

In October he was awarded a British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his help to the local community. Most delivery drivers toil without such acknowledgement.

But there are signs the crucial part played during the pandemic by some of those with the least prestigious jobs is gaining recognition. Lidl promised a one-off bonus of £200 to its supermarket staff, cleaners, warehouse staff and customer assistants to thank them for their hard work during the Covid crisis.

Usdaw would like to see more than just financial recompense. Paddy Lillis, the union’s general secretary, says: “The Government must prioritise vulnerable occupations in the second phase of the vaccine rollout, reflecting the risks they face. They have worked throughout the pandemic to keep the country supplied with essentials and these key workers must be valued, respected and protected.”

Read more: Social distancing rage triggers surge of attacks on supermarket staff


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