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Coronavirus: Positivity and laughter — what it's like to be part of the NHS supermarket shopping hour

Lianna Brinded
Head of Yahoo Finance UK

The selfish approach of stockpilers, panic buyers, and drinkers still intent on having a pint in their local pub could not have been more starkly contrasted in the aisles of a mega Tesco in south London.

This weekend, NHS workers across the country were treated to a dedicated hour of supermarket shopping before regular opening hours in Tesco (TSCO.L).

Full of camaraderie, generosity on anti-bacterial wipes, and only taking what they need, the hour was filled with positivity and laughter at a time when healthcare staff are battling the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. Tesco stores across the country even thanked them for their work by handing out free flowers on the way out.

Shoppers across the country panic-buying staple goods have led supermarkets to implement strict item limits per person.

From non-perishable goods, such as dried pasta and cans of soup, to fresh food that people have started freezing, reports of supermarket shelves being stripped has not only perpetuated the panic and vicious circle of stock-piling but it has also affected the most vulnerable people in society.

The issue came to the fore in an emotional account by critical care nurse Dawn Bilbrough, who tearfully described how there was no food for her left to buy after a 48-hour shift in a video that subsequently went viral.

In response, many supermarkets have been taking matters into their own hands — granting NHS workers and the elderly designated hours where they can shop before the general public does.

Claire, 32, who works as a specialist nurse in oncology, spoke to Yahoo Finance UK at the mega Tesco store in Purley on the outskirts of south London and echoed Bilbrough’s comments.

After working long hours, “we’ve not been able to get groceries after work. We would go to Sainsbury’s after a shift and it would be totally empty. Nothing was there. And we haven’t been stockpiling — we have two toilet rolls,” she said.

“It’s just stressful and I think it’s upsetting that people are being so inconsiderate. It’s disappointing for us but also to the vulnerable and elderly.

“But not everyone is bad and there is a lot of kindness happening at the same time. People shopping for one another, there are still trying to just take what they need.”

NHS workers queue before their special designated shopping hour at 10am local time at Tesco in Purley, Surrey. Photo: Yahoo Finance UK/Lianna Brinded

The scenes in the large Tesco mega store in Purley were just that — full of kindness and support for one another.

One NHS worker shopper offered to spray the shopping trolley handles with anti-bacterial spray and clean up with kitchen roll. Another was offering to hold spaces in the queue while someone by themselves went to find a trolley. Another person was telling their son why it was important why they only get what they need, even if it’s tempting to stock up on his favourite foods.

While queues to get in went around the entire building, into and through the car park, it moved swiftly and there was no rushing or barging, which has become synonymous with social media posts over the last few weeks.

Within 10 mins of doors opening for NHS workers shopping within their special designated hour at Tesco in Purley, Surrey. Photo: Yahoo Finance UK/Lianna Brinded

Inside the staff were making sure shelves were drip-fed stocked, rather than packing out the shelves to the brim. No one was stockpiling in their trolleys, people were taking just what they need and discussions over whether they really that extra cleaning spray or more than one pack of toilet paper, made sure that everyone got what they needed.

NHS workers were then given free flowers on their way out — thanking them for their service. There was applause, tears and gratitude.

My husband, who is a medical scientist for oncology, said “I’ve never been been given flowers before!”

Tesco staff gave free flowers to NHS workers before they left the Tesco in Purley, Surrey. Photo: Yahoo Finance UK/Lianna Brinded

But this wasn’t just for the Tesco in Purley — Tesco told the PA news agency that staff at stores across the country independently decided to make the gesture as part of the NHS hour.

But while it was a positive experience, NHS workers have worried that the general public are not taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously enough.

“I think until last few days people have been not really been taking it seriously. I think there needs to be stricter measures for people because there has been a ‘f*** it attitude,’” said one NHS worker at the store.

On Sunday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said "my message is you've got to do this in line with the advice, you've got to follow the social distancing rule — keep 2 metres apart.

"Otherwise if you don't do it responsibly... as you suggest there is going to be no doubt that we will have to bring forward further measures and we are certainly keeping that under constant review."

While the designated hours for NHS workers was a hit, many noted that not everyone will be able to leave their homes to shop. But, from the Sunday press conference, it looks like this may be covered.

Johnson and his cabinet announced that 1.5 million people who are identified as vulnerable will be written to tell them to stay indoors. In the meantime, the government will still provide all the care they need and have food and basic supplies dropped off to their doorsteps.