Postal workers have called on Royal Mail and e-commerce sites to limit the amount of non-essential items they are being asked to deliver at a time when they are risking their health by turning up to work.
Despite the UK government’s closure of non-essential retail outlets, e-commerce companies can continue operating unless they decide to close voluntarily. But for the delivery workers who carry goods to customers in their homes, the responsibility of being a key worker is frequently undermined by the nature of the items being delivered.
Emily, a postal worker in Scotland, said: “We are currently delivering video games and leaflets for local restaurants, when instead we could be ones who reduce the requirement for the elderly to go out to get food. The infrastructure we have can be used for good, but delivery of non-essentials must not come before our health.”
Another postal worker, in comments shared on an employee forum, said: “We could be safe from this virus. But because the Royal Mail see Mother’s Day cards as essential work, apparently we all have to risk our lives and the safety of the country now.
“You’re out exposing yourself and your families to this deadly virus for the ‘essential work’ of Screwfix magazines and eBay jewellery. Yes, we should have a skeleton service for coronavirus and other essential mail – medical supplies, groceries and toiletries. All other services should stop.”
A spokesperson for CWU, the union that represents postal workers, said such complaints were common among its members.
“Two weeks ago we announced an overwhelming strike ballot result but said that we weren’t going to call strike action during this period because it would be irresponsible. We said we want postal workers to become an additional emergency service in the UK. We believe this could really help the country in these unprecedented times,” they said.
“But there has to be a serious discussion around the prioritisation of mail now: NHS letters, coronavirus testing kits, food parcels, we want them delivered by the Royal Mail. What we don’t want to be delivering is ‘here’s the latest shopping offers’ – what the public would call junk mail.”
Shane O’Riordain, Royal Mail’s managing director of regulation and corporate affairs, said the company was instituting changes to prioritise some mail. “From tomorrow, we will deliver unaddressed door to door advertising mailings to customers who are receiving addressed letters or parcels at the same time, wherever practically possible.”
Royal Mail has also imposed new rules limiting the staffing of delivery vans to one person and rearranged workplaces to implement physical distancing. “The social distancing measures were brought in by Royal Mail. We put in place a considered and comprehensive package,” O’Riordain said.
But workers say it is taking time for that to be reflected on the ground. “The CWU decided we could be an emergency service, but we don’t even have the ability to clean our hands,” said Emily.
What do the new restrictions involve?
People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:
- Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
- One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
- Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home
Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:
- Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
- Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
- Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals
Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.
Royal Mail said: “We are required to deliver the universal service through the market and without recourse to a public subsidy. The universal postal service provides a lifeline to businesses and communities everywhere and we are proud to provide it. Door-to-door mailings and marketing mail are a very important means of paying for the universal service and supporting the delivery of all mail – including important documents such as hospital appointments and medical prescriptions.
“The delivery of parcels and letters is a key way of keeping the country together and helping many people who may not have the option to leave their homes. Their work at this time is hugely appreciated. We are proud of our people whenever they are able to go beyond the call of duty and help the local community in a safe way in these difficult times.”
Change will need to involve more than Royal Mail, however, and some retailers have acted at their own behest to prioritise essential items. Amazon, the largest e-commerce company, said: “Many of these customers have no other way to get priority items and we want to be sure that we have the right resources in place to deliver on their needs.
“We are prioritising the intake and dispatch of items most needed by our customers right now. These are items such as food, health and personal care products, books and items needed to work from home.”
“The public has to be thinking about needs and wants,” said the CWU. “Some people are just clearly at home bored buying all sorts of rubbish.”