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‘Now we’re key workers’ - Retail staff speak out about stress caused by panic buying

PUBLISHED: 16:43 23 March 2020 | UPDATED: 16:48 23 March 2020

Tesco, Sheringham, where manager Leon Egmore says customers need to pay closer attention to social distancing advice.
Photo: KAREN BETHELL

Tesco, Sheringham, where manager Leon Egmore says customers need to pay closer attention to social distancing advice. Photo: KAREN BETHELL

Archant

Supermarket workers battling to keep shelves stocked in the face of unprecedented demand say they are bearing the brunt of customers’ frustration at not being able to buy the food and toiletry staples they need.

Tesco, Sheringham, manager Leon Egmore, who says customers need to pay closer attention to social distancing advice.
Photo: KAREN BETHELLTesco, Sheringham, manager Leon Egmore, who says customers need to pay closer attention to social distancing advice. Photo: KAREN BETHELL

And in spite of steps taken by major retailers to introduce measures aimed at protecting colleagues and their families, many shoppers are putting their own health, and that of staff, at risk by ignoring advice to keep their distance at the checkout.

One Norwich supermarket worker, who did not want to be identified, said that with many of his colleagues at home self-isolating, the stress on those left to hold the fort was “terrible”.

Warning notice at the tills in Morrisons, Cromer.
Photo: KAREN BETHELLWarning notice at the tills in Morrisons, Cromer. Photo: KAREN BETHELL

“A lot of people are taking absolutely no notice of all the advice,” he said. “They are bringing their children in who then pick things up from the shelves and, when they come to the tills to pay, you get people leaning right in to talk to you.

“What bothers me is that while NHS staff get protection and respect, people who work in retail are being put at risk because of the actions of members of the public who don’t show us the courtesy they show health workers - and we can’t take the same measures to protect ourselves because of the job we do.”

Empty shelves at a Norfolk Morrisons store.
Photo: SONYA DUNCANEmpty shelves at a Norfolk Morrisons store. Photo: SONYA DUNCAN

He added that although many elderly people were staying away, others were ignoring government advice to limit face-to-face contact and continuing to pop in daily for non-essentials.

“We’ve got over 70s coming in just for a newspaper and although I appreciate that they want to stay connected with the community and, for a lot of them, going shopping is their social life, unless everyone takes the advice seriously, retail staff are going to get infected and then infect vulnerable people.

Panic buying at a Norfolk Morrisons store.
Photo: SONYA DUNCANPanic buying at a Norfolk Morrisons store. Photo: SONYA DUNCAN

At Morrisons, Cromer, every checkout has posters warning customers that staff may be unable to serve them if they do not follow guidelines, including sticking to purchase limits on products, paying by card or mobile app where possible and staying one metre away from staff and fellow shoppers.

But, according to one worker, who also did not want to be named, the behaviour of some customers had been “shocking”, with staff suffering verbal abuse and having to comfort elderly people reduced to tears because they were unable to get what they needed.

Morrisons, Cromer, where staff say many customers are ignoring social distancing advice.
Photo: KAREN BETHELLMorrisons, Cromer, where staff say many customers are ignoring social distancing advice. Photo: KAREN BETHELL

Some shoppers had been attempting to get round three per customer product limits by buying their quota and leaving the store, only to return a few minutes later to buy more.

Another general assistant at the Cromer Road store agreed that many customers were paying little heed to government advice.

He said: “Although some customers have been taking it seriously with gloves, face masks and keeping good social distancing, others happily shop without any caution whatsoever and even openly admit that they aren’t afraid of getting CV and won’t be staying at home – and this is mainly from elderly customers who are the most vulnerable.”

Even the most experienced Morrisons colleagues had acted with “disbelief” at the behaviour of panic buyers, he added.

“Now, I think it’s calmed down and people are realising we are doing our best,” he said.

“Customers have thanked us for our hard work and I think it has really hit home just how lucky they are to have a store to shop in. The pandemic has put into perspective what really matters in life.”

Morrisons bosses had been “thinking on their feet” he said, rolling out local deliveries and emailing a daily update letting staff know what action was being taken to keep them safe.

However, he felt the government could do more to support retail workers, many of whom were poorly paid, working part time or on zero hours contracts.

Leon Egmore, store manager at Tesco, Sheringham, said his staff had received complaints from disgruntled customers, but “nothing major”.

The store had taken measures including recruiting an extra 25 staff to cope with demand, he added, with a dedicated early opening hour for NHS staff attracting 85 people at the weekend.

He said: “I would like to thank customers for the support we have had, but we do need to see more social distancing and respect shown to the store workers on the front line and I would urge people to stay calm and be mindful of standing at a safe distance from other people.”

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