Stephen Jardine: Add shop staff to the list of frontline fighters in this war

Those working to provide us with food, in shops and depots, are essential workers in this war, writes Stephen Jardine

The likes of Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin will pay the price for their actions over the past fortnight (Picture: PA)

If one good thing comes out of the coronavirus crisis, it will be a reset when it comes to what is important and more to the point, who is important in all our lives.

For years shows like The Apprentice and Dragons Den have fetishised business and making money over everything else. Coronavirus offers us a different perspective on life.

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In time Richard Branson, Mike Ashley and Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin will pay the price for their actions over the past fortnight as the public react to the way they have approached their responsibilities as rich and powerful men.

Instead it will be those on the frontline who should emerge from this more cherished than ever. That starts with the NHS staff who literally have their lives on the line right now. Then there are the police and fire services who will have an enhanced role in the weeks ahead, keeping our country safe.

But alongside them there is a new emergency service which is just as vital but receives none of the kudos. In the war against coronavirus, those keeping us fed are on the frontline. Food manufacturers and distributors are part of the battle but I’m really talking about those in the trenches going over the top every day.

Supermarket staff didn’t sign up for any of this. In exchange for low wages they had a low stress job but coronavirus has changed all that. In a world of social distancing they have to come face to face with strangers all day every day just so we can have our toilet rolls and tangerines.

It really struck me the other day in a queue at the checkout. Most people kept their distance but inevitably there was a man with a cough, fumbling for change among the hankies in his pocket. The assistant dealing with this was less than a metre away.

Aldi have already announced they will be paying staff a bonus and all supermarkets should be doing that out of the vast profits they will be making at the moment. It’s the least they can do.

For Scotland’s 5,000 conveniences stores, it is a different story. If supermarket staff are on the frontline, workers in these small independent shops are in a foxhole far out in No Man’s Land with scant ammunition.

Around 38 per cent of corner shops are in rural areas and in many places they offer a vital lifeline to local communities with no other places to shop for miles. According to the Scottish Grocers Federation, the small independents are holding up well in the current crisis.

The giant supermarket central distribution hubs were caught on the hop by sudden panic buying leading to gaps on the shelves for some products. In contrast local convenience stores tend to be more agile as they stock up and top up direct from wholesalers.

But they do more than keep us in bread, milk and beans. In communities where everything else is closed at the moment, shop assistants offer a familiar face to people who are isolated and anxious. And all while they are anxious too.

So the next time you leave home to go the shops, ask the assistant how they are, wish them well and give them a smile. They are on the frontline so we don’t have to be.