18 January 2021, 08:36 AM
  • Food retail staff have been key workers on the front lines throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and now the industry is calling for priority access to vaccines
Prioritise vaccines for retail workers, industry says

The government has been urged to prioritise vaccinations for retail workers once the first round of the drug is rolled out to the most vulnerable people.

Health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that he would be “looking very carefully at those professions that will need to be prioritised in phase two of the prioritisation programme”. He said: “We’ll look at, of course, teachers and police and others, but also we will look at shop workers and we will make those decisions based on the data.”

The industry is seeking a guarantee, arguing that there is an “urgent need” to prioritise staff in retail, given current high sickness rates. “According to the government’s own research, retail is an occupation with an elevated Covid-19 related death rate. Close proximity to the public as well as the indoor working environment are factors,” said Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the union Usdaw.

“Retail workers, including grocery delivery drivers, have played a key role in ensuring the country is able to get through the current crisis. These critical workers have played a vital role in our communities ensuring that food remains on the shelves,” Paddy added. “From our conversations with employers, we are aware that the sector is currently suffering from incredibly high sickness absence rates as a result of Covid-19.”

Stuart Reddish, national president of the Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN), welcomed Matt Hancock’s comments and urged the government to “act upon his words” in order to protect independent shop workers.

Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) was also supportive of the proposal. “Last year the government recognised the very important role played by retail staff to ensure that vital services were maintained – retail was like an emergency service in this respect,” he told Speciality Food.

“Retailers want to continue to support their communities, and every day staff put themselves at risk. It makes real sense to prioritise this group of workers who have never failed to rise to the challenge throughout this crisis.”

Mark Kacary, managing director of The Norfolk Deli welcomed the news that the government was considering prioritising retail workers, but said there are many worthy causes and cases that should be considered for early vaccination. “Vulnerable people, those who look after them, those who are the front line in terms of actually running into dangerous situations such as paramedics clearly need to be at the top of the list.

“Then the question is who is a retail worker? Is it a food retailer or hospitality worker? Are these workers who are surrounded by Perspex and who wear a mask and have sanitizer by their side, or is it a retail worker who’s had to put their hands in their own pockets to provide all the safety measures they can muster and who then goes out into the field and does the home deliveries themselves?” Mark continued.

“The list for who is prioritised is long, and everyone will have a claim as to why they’re more important than the next. I’d like to get the vaccine and feel that little bit more safe, but I’d prefer it if we can get this done nationwide as quickly as possible so that some level of normality can resume, even with the knowledge that as with flu this will be with us in some way for the rest of our lives,” he added.

Paddy said other key workers in essential industries, such as food manufacturing, should be on the list of prioritisation, too: “They cannot work from home and are at higher risk of infection because of the essential work they do, which should be acknowledged as part of the rollout programme.”

The debate followed the creation of a petition calling for key retail workers to be given access to the Covid-19 vaccine. “They were called ‘heroes’ and should be high on the list of first people to receive the vaccine,” wrote Sarah Green, who created the petition. “This is a petition to demand we get faster protection for our frontline key retail staff who keep the country fed.”

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