VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Supermarket workers have been forgotten in the vaccine rollout

Louisa Merrick-White argues that supermarket workers should have been prioritised in the government’s vaccine rollout.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 11:45 am
Louisa Merrick-White

This time last year, supermarket workers were enjoying a new-found appreciation as ‘key workers’, and rightly so. Overworked, understaffed and trying to do their job in times of unprecedented supply and demand issues, the supermarket workers’ contribution to keeping the country going will long be remembered. So why have they been so quickly forgotten in the Government’s vaccine rollout?

One set of Test and Trace data from Public Health England showed that supermarkets were the place most commonly visited by people who later tested positive for Covid-19. So, with evidence suggesting that supermarkets have a big impact on transmission rates, where do their employees fit into the Government’s plans?

In January, a petition, amassing over 47,000 signatures, was launched to encourage the Government to prioritise key retail workers. In response, the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Whilst phase one is currently aimed at reducing mortality based on age and clinical risk factors, phase two may be aimed at vaccinating those at high risk of exposure and/or those delivering key public services”.

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In February, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the Government had asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to consider whether phase two of the vaccination programme should focus on professions which bring people into “much greater contact with people and therefore much greater volumes of the virus.” However, this never came to fruition and the Government perseveres in vaccinating people in decreasing age order.

The benefit of this approach is clear; it’s a methodical way to gradually ensure everyone gets vaccinated according to the main factor in increased mortality – age. Nevertheless, the Government’s failure to make special considerations for supermarket and other key workers, represents yet another addition to the catalogue of questionable decisions made in its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is largely a consensus from supermarket workers on this issue, with many feeling that they should’ve been prioritised in the vaccine rollout. One supermarket worker said: “Obviously we’d never expect to be prioritised above the elderly or vulnerable, but we come into contact with so many people at work, it would make sense for us to be vaccinated as soon as possible”. Another added, “I feel really strongly that supermarket workers should be prioritised for vaccinations. The NHS have done an amazing job but I feel other key workers haven’t had the recognition they deserve”. Interestingly, however, one noted that because their work doesn’t bring them into direct contact with vulnerable people, they saw no reason to be given the vaccine ahead of others.

Of course, vaccinating the country’s 1.2m supermarket workers is no small task. However, given the potential transmission risks, and the number of young people employed by supermarkets who are currently at the bottom of the list for a vaccine, it’s clear that supermarket workers should’ve been prioritised for vaccinations.