Every day in the UK, more than 400 retail workers are assaulted, just for doing their jobs.
The Co-op shop worker who was attacked with a knife during a robbery in Barnsley earlier this week suffered a terrible ordeal which highlights the vulnerability of people who have been feeding the nation during the pandemic.
Politicians are quick to praise supermarket and food retail workers. Without their efforts, the food supply chain would have simply fallen apart over the last four months.
But words of praise are not enough. There is overwhelming evidence that tougher sanctions are needed against those who wish them harm.
Central England Co-op, the employer of the worker who was attacked with the knife, has received “multiple” reports of customers threatening to cough on shop workers to give them coronavirus.
Since the lockdown was introduced, the Co--op has recorded more than 100 incidents related directly to people using COVID-19 as a threat.
Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, said: “No-one should face threats, abuse or intimidation as they go about their job.
“I have long campaigned on this vitally important issue, including putting forward an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill in 2014 on tackling abuse against retail workers.”
The retail trade union Usdaw has expressed “deep disappointment” that the Government rejected proposals for a new law to protect shop workers from violence, threats and abuse, despite evidence that these types of incidents have doubled during the coronavirus emergency.
It took the Government a year to formulate a response to a Home Office consultation on violence against shop workers. Usdaw estimates that more than 150,000 shop workers have been assaulted over the last year.
Paddy Lillis, Usdaw’s General Secretary said the Government had failed to listen to the voices of shop workers and retailers, who had jointly called for a simple stand-alone offence that would be understood by the public, police, Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary and, most importantly, the criminals.
Apart from the threat of assault, many shop workers have been worried about contracting coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that sales assistants, cashiers and security guards have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
The death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75 per cent higher among men and 60 per cent higher among women than in the general population.
Mr Lillis said some shoppers are resisting social distancing measures in stores and can become abusive when asked to queue and maintain social distancing.
The Government said it will work closely with members of the National Retail Crime Steering Group to “further develop the evidence base” regarding the role drugs, as well as alcohol and other factors, play in driving violence and abuse towards shop workers.
The Government has provided £60,000 of Home Office funding to the Association of Convenience Stores to run a communications campaign to raise awareness about attacks on staff.
It has also found £1 million of funding over three years for the police-led National Business Crime Centre, which is working to improve communication between police forces on business crime.
The Co-operative Party, the Co-operative Group and USDAW are backing a change to the law to secure stronger protections for shop workers and tougher penalties against those who assault or threaten them.
Given the vast scale of the levels of abuse and intimidation facing shop workers, a new law would seem to be the strongest possible deterrent.
It would, to almost quote Dr Johnson, concentrate any criminal’s mind wonderfully and might stop them in their tracks. Incidents like the horrific attack in Barnsley would probably become less common.
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