Luke Evans: We must protect our shop workers from violent crime. Not ask them to police the wearing of face masks.

15 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Last Friday, a shop worker in my constituency was walking across the car park of the Co-op branch where he works after taking his break. The employee at the Markfield store saw a man acting suspiciously in the car park so asked if he could help him?

At that point the man became ‘very angry and verbally aggressive’ and started shouting abuse at the employee.

Without any provocation, the individual in question physically assaulted the shop worker knocking him unconscious, and subsequently rolled him on to his side stealing the employee’s phone, before climbing into his car and making his escape.

The Central England Co-operative Society have rightly decided to take a firm stance in respect of the incident, they are seeking both to ensure that their employee recovers from the ordeal, but are also doing everything in their power to ensure the perpetrator is tracked down and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The details of this incident are shocking, they are also – sadly – not particularly surprising.

The latest edition of the British Retail Consortium Retail Crime Survey reveals that there are 424 violent or abusive incidents against retail employees every day – an increase of nine per cent on the previous year; the use of knives is becoming an increasingly concerning factor; and over 70 per cent of respondents described the police response to retail crime as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

It’s very easy to forget all of the events of Covid-19 pandemic, especially the astonishing contribution made to the national effort made by shop workers.

In the early days as most of us were advised to stay at home, we have to remember that, alongside NHS and care workers, it was shop assistants who continued to go to work, putting their own lives at risk, to ensure we could all continue to put food on the table.

In a very real sense, our shop workers have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

Incidents like the one which happened last week in my constituency should not happen. I’m supportive of the principle behind Alex Norris’ Private Member’s Bill calling upon certain offences against retail workers in the course of their employment, such as malicious wounding, to be classed as aggravated offences.

But I would suggest that those protections are needed now more than ever.

This virus has a habit of exploiting weaknesses in our society, and I am about to use it to highlight another.

For not only do we have the year on year increasing level of aggression against shopworkers we also now have their potential role in enforcing the mandatory and controversial wearing of face coverings in shops and supermarkets from 24 July.

In the same way as we must now wear face coverings on public transport, it is the police who will be able to enforce non-compliance in shops. But whilst we have to make clear that protecting our shop assistants is a priority, demanding that they act as quasi-police officers themselves never should be.

Shop assistants asking customers to put on a face covering will unavoidably put themselves at greater risk of being attacked.

With what is very clear legislation we must expect local police forces to act quickly and robustly in order to educate, change behaviour but most importantly protect those shop workers who were prepared to place everything on the line for us just four short months ago.

There is an ongoing debate about enforcing mask wearing, and I see both sides.

The mandatory wearing of face coverings isn’t primarily about protecting yourself, but about protecting others, and shop workers must be included at the very top of that list. It’s quite possible that there will be a second wave of coronavirus infections. I have heard multiple witnesses from Asia, in my role on the Health Select Committee, stating that one of the reasons countries in Asia have fared better is due to the culture adaption of virus reducing behaviour, learned through SARS, MERS and now Covid-19 – and mask wearing is an important part of that.

I see mask-wearing as a symptom, a time-limited intervention to deal with a specific problem. What we mustn’t forget however is those who will suffer because of this introduction; the deaf who lip read and possibly the high street as the advent of masks may deter shoppers.

But the wider point is simply this: frontline workers deserve to be protected, be it from assault or a virus – and we shouldn’t forget or negate that.