NEWS

Can online retail continue to run safely amid the Covid-19 outbreak?

Published on: 30th March 2020

Current guidance allows online retail to continue, but issues are being raised surrounding worker’s safety and categorising ‘essential’ produce. 

The UK government has ordered the closure of all ‘non-essential’ stores and now many UK retailers are working to keep online operations running during this unprecedented period.

The majority of businesses with the ability to do so continue to follow official government guidance, which currently states “online retail is still open and encouraged, and postal and delivery services will run as normal”. Policies will differ by retailer, and the GMB union is campaigning for safe conditions on behalf of thousands of its retail employee members.

Responsible retailers that are keeping their online platform running are striving to follow government guidelines, and amending facilities accordingly. Fashion retailer Next, which has a well-established online operation, has said: “We are increasing levels of safety supervision and compliance in all operational workplaces to ensure they remain safe. We are also investing in increased levels of sanitisation. We have already implemented measures to maintain strict social distancing. Further measures are being introduced to increase compliance and increase the distance between employees when they are at work.”

But even for those companies that have kept online operations running as safely as possible may find that staff cannot avoid taking public transport to work, further risking safety. This has raised concerns about how warehouses can balance keeping non-essential online platforms running whilst adhering to government-led social distancing measures. Debate has also been raised surrounding what exactly falls into the category of ‘essential goods’.

There are very few e-tailers, or retailers with an online presence, that are officially classed as ‘essential’, and government guidance has thrown up contradictory advice.  Paul Edwick, CEO of online retailer Lucy Locket, commented: “Try telling a mother of a six-month-old baby that new clothes aren’t essential, or that primary school age children don’t need anything new from the toy retailers and you run into the question of what is essential to one person isn’t essential to the next one.”

As the coronavirus crisis escalates, official government advice could change at any time. Daily updates to how society and businesses should act during this uncertain time, mostly aimed at easing the burden on the national health service, are forcing businesses to keep changing their practices.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at e-tail trade association IMRG, said: “Official government advice is online retail can continue, but retailers may have that decision made for them. While many employees will be able to work from home, they can’t fulfil orders without warehouse staff and drivers. If they get cases of Covid-19 in warehouses, it’s likely they would have to shut them down and, consequently, cease online trading.”

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