I joined Tesco for a stress-free life but now I’m on the coronavirus frontline | Simon Lord | Opinion
I joined Tesco seven years ago this week, after a disastrous 12 months working as a manager for a small business in which I was bullied by the owner. I deliberately looked for as simple a role as possible where all I had to do was clock in, do my shift, clock out and go home without worrying about what the next working day would bring.
Now I find myself on one of the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus. While health professionals care for fast-growing numbers of very sick people, my team and I serve the huge numbers who are worried that they will not be able to buy the food and other products they need to keep their family fed and in good health.
I started work as a checkout operator in 2013. I am now a supervisor. Over a nine-hour shift, I oversee the running of the checkouts. I make sure my team take their breaks on time, organise the cleaner when there are spillages and sort out other issues that arise. Customers often misplace an item or forget their wallet or purse. Until about 15 days ago, it was that simple and pleasantly low-stress.
The first sign of coronavirus at the Oxfordshire store where I work was people coming through the tills with multiple 24-roll packs of toilet paper. One lady brought five packs. That’s 120 loo rolls. Videos have gone viral showing similar scenes in Australia. And when the toilet paper ran out, customers started stocking up on kitchen roll and face tissues instead. Today, I look around the store and there are many other sold-out products. Pet food, beer, breakfast cereal, tea and coffee, fresh meat, milk, eggs and potatoes are all low in stock.
Usually, one of the joys of my job is that I have time to say hello to our regulars and help people who need assistance. The interaction is rewarding and I go home happy that I’ve added a smile or a laugh to someone’s day. Coronavirus has changed that. Now my interactions are mostly negative. I find myself explaining newly imposed item limits, and apologising that we have run out of hand sanitiser. Most customers are polite and understanding, but one or to try to onload their frustration on me. I apologise again, and move on to the next challenge. Food retail is used to peaks in demand, with Christmas being the obvious example. Christmas, however, is fixed and finite: 2 January always brings with it a return to calm.
Supermarket work has never been particularly highly regarded. It’s a role that younger people take on to bring in spending money, or that attracts pensioners keen to keep busy – not one that you aspire to or that comes with much respect. As a result of this pandemic, attitudes are taking a welcome turn. Customers thank us for what we are doing; they now see the true value of the once-taken-for-granted shopping trip and its life-sustaining importance.
A small but noticeable number of my colleagues are now in self-isolation as they are aged 70 or over, or have health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to a coronavirus infection. They have been replaced by rapidly recruited temporary staff who have been laid off from their previous jobs in recent days. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked if we are hiring.
Our team is starting to develop a real sense of gallows humour. A bottle of vodka was dropped and broken – “Save it for hand sanitiser!” came the cry. Measures to keep us distanced from customers are starting to kick in, but we are all conscious that the high footfall of potential virus carriers elevates our own risk of catching the disease. I live with my wife, and one of my three adult daughters who has returned from London to the relative safety of the countryside. Like everyone in the UK right now, I have far more than just my own health to think about.
But my head still teems with questions from work. How many will be in the queue waiting for the doors to open at 6am? Which stock lines will be low or completely sold out? Will the changes the company is very sensibly bringing in be enough to keep us all safe? Which of my colleagues will have contracted the virus? My job, which had predictable weekly and seasonal rhythms, now feels like a voyage through a stormy sea.