Coughed on, spat at: UK shop workers fear asking customers to wear masks | Coronavirus outbreak

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Seventeen-year-old Hayley Sterry has been spat at, coughed on and verbally abused while working at the checkouts of her local Sainsbury’s throughout the pandemic.

“We want to be safer and have everyone following the rules but we have no say in the slightest. People blame the workers and not the company – it’s crazy. No one wants to ask customers to wear face masks if they haven’t got one on, it’s not worth it.”

Despite the public show of support and gratitude for key workers in recent months, the abuse of retail and transport workers has remained persistent and acute. Over 75% of shop workers surveyed by the shopworkers union Usdaw last month reported being abused by customers when asking them to socially distance; almost half had experienced abuse triggered by reminding shoppers to wear face masks. The preliminary findings of the union’s annual Freedom from Fear report, shared exclusively with the Observer, reveal the toll taken on the wellbeing of those working in essential services.

Doug Russell, Usdaw’s health and safety officer, said: “We are concerned that the already high levels of violence and abuse against shopworkers have doubled as a result of the coronavirus crisis. While retailers and their staff should do what they can to encourage people to comply, they cannot enforce the rules. They do not have the powers to do so and it would be unsafe to expect shop staff to police the system.”

The Co-op is giving body cameras to public-facing employees vulnerable to customer abuse, and the supermarket is urging government to provide greater legal protection for shopworkers, calling for it to back the Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill, a private member’s bill introduced by Labour MP Alex Norris, which is due its second reading on 25 September.

Paul Gerrard, the Co-op’s director of campaigns and public affairs, said: “The level of crime and antisocial behaviour is at unacceptable levels, and the wearing of face masks is a further flashpoint. Shopworkers deserve to be treated with respect. I’m deeply concerned about the lasting impact of abuse on shopworkers, both mentally and physically.”

In statements Asda, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s made clear that customers would be encouraged to wear masks but that staff would not be asked to challenge them. A spokesperson from Waitrose added: “Government guidance states that it is not the responsibility of retailers to enforce the wearing of face coverings by customers when in shops. However, our partners have been and will continue to remind customers of the requirement.”

Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, is leading calls to allow local authorities the power to enforce legislation designed to keep the public safe – be that the ability to close down businesses where face masks or social distancing rules are not adhered to, or allowing council officers to issue on-the-spot fines.

“The prime minister’s announcement that we will have marshals to patrol the city and enforce the rules is needed, but I’m concerned about the detail,” he said. “The city of Liverpool is losing £2m a week. There is a £23m shortfall in this year’s budget. How will the scheme be funded? As usual, there is no clarity or conversation from this government. Like mushrooms, we are fed shit and kept in the dark.”

A shopper wearing a face mask takes a basket at an Iceland store in Caerphilly, Wales.
A shopper wearing a face mask takes a basket at an Iceland store in Caerphilly, Wales. Photograph: Matthew Horwood

A rapid rise in infections across its neighbourhoods has placed the whole of Merseyside on the Covid-19 watchlist, and while Anderson expressed his frustration with Downing Street, he said the onus should be placed on businesses – including supermarkets – to do more: “I hear countless examples of shops in the city full of people not wearing face coverings, but they have a responsibility to make sure customers are wearing masks. They need to ensure rules are enforced.”

Since July’s U-turn on face coverings, when they became mandatory in enclosed public spaces including shops and public transport, compliance is generally perceived to be high. In its most recent dataset, the Office of National Statistics reports that 96% of adults claim to have worn a face covering at least once in the week up to 30 August. Most people appear to be following the rules.

“It’s important to remember that you will never see 100% of people wearing a face covering, be it staff or customers: there’s a significant segment of the population who have very legitimate reasons and are exempted from wearing a face covering,” said Siwan Hayward, director of compliance and policing at Transport for London. The underground is running at around 35% of its normal capacity and Hayward has deployed 350 TfL workers across the network to enforce Covid security.

“Our operation officers have stopped and engaged with 90,000 people since 4 July, and the vast majority of those people have a face covering on them and will immediately comply,” she said. Of that number, in figures updated to 10 September, 6,529 were stopped from boarding services, a further 1,609 were removed, and 350 people – the vast majority being male and under 30 – were reported to the police and fined for not wearing masks.

In July, the prime minister ramped up pressure on the police to uphold face mask laws – a task described as impossible by John Apter, the national chair of the Police Federation, who said forces did not have the staff resources to comply. Enforcement is patchy in the UK, and varies by region.

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Coughed on, spat at: UK shop workers fear asking customers to wear masks | Coronavirus outbreak

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