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Retail chain adopts ‘zero tolerance’ approach as staff spat at and abused

PUBLISHED: 11:34 18 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:09 19 May 2020

Central England Co-op has rising numbers of staff targeted by customers spitting and coughing at them in recent weeks  Picture: ALEX CANTRILL-JONES

Central England Co-op has rising numbers of staff targeted by customers spitting and coughing at them in recent weeks Picture: ALEX CANTRILL-JONES

Central England Co-op

Suffolk and Norfolk shop staff have endured a “totally unacceptable” rise in levels of abuse during the coronavirus lockdown, a regional retail chain has revealed.

Over the past four weeks, Central England Co-op recorded 14 incidents in Norfolk and Suffolk – five times more than last year.

During one of the incidents at a Norfolk store, the retailer described one customer becoming agitated at having to queue to enter and started to swear.

MORE – Shop staff issued with face visors in bid to cut coronavirus infection rate

“The customer was asked by the guard to stop and this was when the customer threatened to spit at colleagues if the customer could not get access quicker,” a spokesman said.

Staff called police and the customer left the store before they arrived.

The chain – which operates across the East of England and Midlands area – said there had been a rise in violent offences and people threatening to cough and spit towards staff.

However, it said it would not be releasing details of the stores involved in order to ensure the safety of its staff.

It branded the rise in violent offences and people threatening to cough and spit in the faces of employees as “totally unacceptable”.

Chief executive Debbie Robinson urged shoppers to treat workers in its stores with “care, compassion and respect” during lockdown.

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Overall, during the past four weeks, incidents of verbal abuse jumped from 11 per week to 24. This is more than four times higher than the same period during 2019 in some cases.

Incidents were recorded in the West Midlands, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, as well as Norfolk and Suffolk.

The retailer operates more than 260 food stores and petrol stations across 16 counties.

But Ms Robinson said on the whole, customers had been supportive.

“However, as the figures released today show, we have a minority who ignore these pleas and treat our hard-working teams in a totally unacceptable manner.

“Today we again ask for people to be kind and respectful to those working in our stores and to understand the changes we have had to put in place are to keep our colleagues and our communities safe and healthy.

“For anyone who does not support us, we will continue to work closely with local police forces to showcase that we have a zero tolerance approach to any violent or threatening behaviour towards our colleagues.

“I am a strong campaigner for shop workers to be treated as public servants in the eyes of the law, in cases where they suffer violence or risk from the public. I would hope their status in society will now be permanently elevated and I am redoubling my efforts in lobbying for a change in sentencing law to ensure those who choose to attack our colleagues are held accountable for their actions on the same level as other frontline workers.”

The retailer has already rolled out a range of other measures in stores aimed at keeping customers and colleagues safe including social distancing, gloves and hand sanitiser, over 1,000 checkout screens, 7,000 face visors for colleagues and over 150 security guards to help with queues.

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