On Friday, for the first time since Covid-19 lockdown measures were announced in the UK, my daughter and I went shopping for food.
Although we arrived at the supermarket relatively early, the socially distanced queue already stretched down the side of the building and around the back of the neighbouring (closed) McDonald’s. As food shopping with a toddler can be a challenge at the best of times, I didn’t hold out great hopes of our getting through the experience in good spirits.
I was wrong, however, at least at first. The sun was shining and there was a jovial mood. The man standing a dutiful 2m in front of us cheerfully informed anyone who would listen that this outing was a treat for him – his first excursion in 14 days after his son visited him on his way back from Italy.
The queue moved surprisingly quickly and within 20 minutes, we were at the entrance. There, a good-humoured twenty-something directed shoppers into the store at regular intervals, according to instructions relayed to him by walkie-talkie. Now and then, when a frail customer only hoping to go in for a handful of items approached him, he let them jump the queue. Nobody seemed to mind.
A couple of the security guards wore scarves wrapped around their faces, but other than this and the sight of a few shoppers wearing gloves, there was little sign of anyone being concerned that this experience might put them at risk of infection. If anything, the flimsy cordons and 2m-marks hazard-taped onto the flagstones had a charming, homespun quality.
This was temporary, the implication seemed to be. We’d all get through this and soon everything would be back to normal so there was no point making the infrastructure of socially distanced shopping sturdy or aesthetically pleasing: we wouldn’t be needing it long.
Inside, Sainsbury’s looked much as I remembered. The only immediately obvious difference was that some of the aisles appeared to have been thinned out and widened, in order to make it easier for people to navigate them while keeping their distance from one another.
There were smaller changes I noticed as we went round: the sign up at the pharmacy counter saying that there were no stocks of paracetamol, face masks, Calpol or hand gel; a few gaps on the shelves, particularly in the toilet roll section. There was also a Tannoy announcement, delivered in a pleasant, female voice, that blared across the store every few minutes: ‘Sainsbury’s is doing everything possible to keep our staff and customers safe…’ it began before going on to trumpet many of the things the company was doing to ‘feed the nation’.
On the whole, everything went smoothly. People were, for the most part, considerate about giving one another space, and there was plenty of food on the shelves. I was able to get all but two of the items on my long and relatively adventurous list.
Just as I had when I went out for my first run under lockdown, I found myself thinking that, much as they went against my non-conformist sensibilities, the restrictions felt freeing. They were effectively enabling me to take sensible precautions to keep myself and those around me safe.
At the checkout, we encountered further changes. Instead of venturing straight to the conveyor belt and loading our items on while the customer ahead paid, we had to wait behind another hazard-taped line until the shopper in front had gone.
Inevitably, this made the process take much longer than normal. As it is rarely quick with a small person, I apologised to the cashier for keeping her waiting as I tried to engineer a speeded-up version of the game we normally play for getting things onto the conveyor.
But she said nothing and stared straight ahead, almost as if she hadn’t heard me, so I redoubled my efforts and hurried to the card-payment device.
‘Thank you for your patience,’ I said. ‘I hope you’re coping all right with all this.’
At that, something in the woman’s face cracked. ‘I’m terrified,’ she told me in a half-whisper. ‘I think most of the people in here are. But there’s nothing we can about it. We just have to not think about it.’
At that moment, I noticed another member of staff walking along the end of the checkouts holding a piece of paper over her nose and mouth. ‘Sainsbury’s is doing everything possible to keep our staff and customers safe…’ began the Tannoy once more.
But it wasn’t true. Although the aisles had been widened to enable customers to keep their distance, as far as I could see, no modifications had been made to the checkouts to protect the people sitting there for hours at a time.
With face masks in such short supply that even many frontline medical staff don’t have them, it was perhaps understandable that these had not been provided. But neither was there any antibacterial spray for wiping things down, handwash, gloves or a screen that might shield the worker from the breath of a customer who got too close.*
Instead, the cashiers, enclosed in their booths, had no option but to sit still and rely on the sensitivity and good sense of those streaming through the checkouts. It wasn’t surprising that the woman was so frightened she could hardly speak.
I wrote in an earlier post about the problems with the war comparisons that many people are reaching for to describe the national response to Covid-19. Here, however, a parallel hit me: a century on from the First World War, thousands of low-paid people were once more being put into a dangerous situation without adequate guidance or equipment in the national interest.
As I feared, I did not leave the supermarket in good spirits. I felt saddened and ashamed.
*Since writing this post, I have been told that checkout staff have gloves, spray and cloths available as standard. However, the main issue for the woman sitting at the checkout seemed to be the lack of protective screen and distancing measures.