Every Little Helps or Very Little Help?

"Essentials" unless it’s clothes, period products, books, household items and greetings cards, writes Georgina Littlejohn.

It’s not been a great few days for Tesco…

Not for its branches in Wales, anyway.

The country went into lockdown last Friday evening and, like for the whole of the UK in March, bars, pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops were forced to close.

But the leading supermarkets have been allowed to stay open, so it’s safe to say the people of Wales have flocked to them for food, booze, newspapers and other household items.

However, their trips came with provisos that left unsuspecting shoppers understandably rather miffed – and made Tesco the subject of some rather embarrassing headlines.

It all started when a photo was shared on Twitter of the Tesco Superstore Pontypool taken on Friday afternoon at 10.50am – 7 hours and ten minutes before the two-week firebreak lockdown started.

It showed store staff covering up an aisle that displayed pillows and bed sheets after the Welsh Government introduced a policy that prohibits the sales of ‘non-essential’ items at all the major supermarkets.

However, it was understood that none of them, including Tesco, was given a list of what items are classified as non-essential, but were instead given guidance on what was deemed ‘essential’.

Staff got to work covering up shelves and putting barriers at the top of aisles that contained items such as clothing, household items including bedding, towels and kitchen appliances, books, toys, and birthday cards.

However, shoppers are free to buy as much alcohol, sweets and fizzy drinks as they like, because they’re all clearly very essential items.

The reasoning behind this decision is that supermarkets should not be allowed to sell products that are also sold by a small, local shop that has been forced to close under the lockdown rules, in order to “maintain a level playing field”.

But surely this will just force shoppers to buy online? And what do elderly shoppers who don’t have access to the internet or aren’t computer savvy do?

As more and more people shared photos of taped off Tesco shelves, these baffling and somewhat draconian measures were being debated across the country on social media and in the news.

And a lot of people in Wales didn’t take too kindly to these new rules with hilarious and very angry results.

One man hit the headlines when he stormed his nearest Tesco superstore in Bangor on Friday night and was filmed angrily ripping plastic sheets off covering non-essential items.

Gwilym Owen, from Anglesey, fumed loudly: Since when have clothes been exempt? Rip the f***ers off… kids’ f***ing clothes, it is a disgrace.”

He was charged with criminal damage, breaching coronavirus regulations and several public order offences and will appear in court on November 24.

Then, on Saturday, Chris Noden went viral after he tried to get into the Tesco superstore in Newport wearing just his pants and a face mask.

He was filmed by his wife Dawn, who told security guards:

“Clothes are non-essential – let him in.

“Clothes are deemed now non-essential. Your stores policy says clothes are non-essential. Let him in to buy some clothes.

“This is beyond a joke. There are children out there growing that need clothes.”

But she was told: “He’s not appropriately dressed. Go and take it up with the government. You can’t come in dressed like that.”

On Saturday afternoon, the Welsh government said it would be reviewing the non-essential item ban after 60,000 people signed a petition calling for the ban to be lifted.

In the meantime, First Minister Mark Drakeford said supermarkets will be given discretion to apply the rules as they see fit.

But as the people of Wales waited for the outcome, the bad headlines weren’t over just yet for poor old Tesco who found itself not just being criticised over non-essential items, but also accused of misogyny.

Early this morning, Twitter user Katie wrote: “Tesco, can you explain to me why I was told that I can’t buy period pads as I’m sure they’re essential to woman. But I can buy alcohol, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Her mum Nichola also shared images of the cordoned off aisle and also demanded to know what was going on.

In a reply tweet, one of Tesco’s social media staff wrote: “Hi Katie. We understand how frustrating these changes will be for our Welsh customers. However, we have been told by the Welsh Government not to sell these items for the duration of the firebreak lockdown. Regards, Raza.”

Cue outrage over male ministers deeming period products non-essential as women took to social media to accuse them of being misogynistic.

However, it turned out that Tesco was actually passing the buck as the Welsh Government jumped into the conversation and tweeted: “This is wrong – period products are essential. Supermarkets can still sell items that can be sold in pharmacies. Only selling essential items during firebreak is to discourage spending more time than necessary in shops. It should not stop you accessing items that you need.”

This prompted Tesco to hurriedly delete its tweet.

While the lockdown in Wales will – hopefully – end on November 9, we probably haven’t seen the last of these firebreakers in the UK.

So let’s hope lessons have been learned and shoppers are able to buy all items, whether non or absolutely essential, which is as it should be. Because if this carries on, it’ll be less a case of ‘Every Little Helps’ and more ‘Very Little Help’.

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Georgina Littlejohn

Georgina Littlejohn is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience specialising in general and London news, entertainment and music. She cut her teeth in TV writing for news, sport and showbiz programmes before moving into print, starting at Associated Newspapers where she worked across the board from the Metro to the Standard to the London Lite before ending at MailOnline, where she was one of the senior showbiz reporters. After going freelance and working stints at the Mirror, the Sun, Music Week and Closer magazine, she took a career break in 2014 to work for theatre impresario Bill Kenwright as his Head of Communications. After a year as Senior Homepage Editor for MSN, she is now back freelancing and currently working for the i newspaper and its award-winning website. Georgina also volunteers as a kennel assistant for the Mayhew and as a befriender for Age UK.

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