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Social distancing rage triggers surge of attacks on supermarket staff

Laura Onita
·3-min read
Co-op worker
Co-op worker
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Supermarket workers are battling a surge of violence as customers vent their rage over a new crackdown on face coverings, the boss of Co-op Food has said.

Demands for staff to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing rules have created a major flashpoint for “abuse, threats and violence”, Jo Whitfield said, with thousands of incidents every week.

She added that supermarkets should not be expected to make customers cover up as this is officially the responsibility of the police.

There has been a 140pc surge in criminal activity at the Co-op over the past year, with more than 200,000 cases including those that are violent, non-violent or involve shoplifting.

It comes after supermarkets launched a massive operation to keep Britain fed which put their typically low-paid workers on the front line of the Covid crisis.

Watch: COVID-19 - Wales enforces stricter rules for supermarkets to curb spread of new variant

Writing for The Telegraph, Ms Whitfield said: “The reality is that shop workers are facing levels of violence for just doing their job: they have been spat at and threatened just because they’ve asked customers to respect social distancing.

“Colleagues have been terrorised with axes and physically punched. Another was hospitalised with a punctured lung and broken ribs after being attacked by three shoplifters over a £10 bottle of spirits. The problem is not a Co-op one, or a retailer one – it is a societal one.”

Social distancing enforcement is the top cause of attacks and aggression against workers whereas before the pandemic it was shoplifting, according to retail workers' union Usdaw.

Almost one in 10 shop staff say they have been assaulted, more than half have been threatened and almost 90pc have been verbally abused.

This month a string of chains have stepped up their efforts to encourage mask use throughout stores or ban entry following pressure from the Government over concerns that supermarkets could be vectors for the spread of Covid.

Face covering rules in England
Face covering rules in England

Separately, Iceland recorded 650 instances of verbal abuse and 30 of physical assault arising from customers’ refusals to comply with Covid rules since March.

The frozen food chain said there had been fewer incidents over the last 12 weeks, but the number had begun to rise again since the latest lockdown took effect.

A spokesman said: “The majority of violent incidents continue to relate to shoplifting [at Iceland]."

Andrew Opie at the British Retail Consortium said: “Sadly, this [enforcement of face coverings] has led to a sharp rise in incidents of violence and abuse against shop workers, which is why it is essential police support the work being done by retailers.”

Supermarkets could face accusations of discrimination against disabled people if they deny entry to shoppers who do not wear face masks and are then singled-out. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written to supermarket bosses warning they could be breaking the law.

Scotland this week voted for new legislation that makes it a specific offence to assault, abuse or threaten retail staff.

Watch: Should I pay off debt or save money during the coronavirus pandemic?