CEOs from 69 retailers and organisations in England and Wales have written to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask for more protection for shop workers and action to be taken against violence and abuse in shops.

The letter was written in response to a recent survey conducted by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) which found that 100% of respondents – essential retail employees – have seen an increase in verbal abuse during the current UK Covid-19 lockdown. There has also been an increase in the number of incidents caused by physical violence to the staff and a notable rise in verbal or violent attacks in which enforcement of Covid-19 enforcement played a key factor.

The letter written to the Prime Minister urges the Government to “treat the issues with the seriousness it deserves and improve protection for our employees by creating a new statutory offence of assaulting, threatening, or abusing a retail worker.

“This has been a growing trend for some time. In March last year, the annual BRC Crime Survey reported that over 400 incidents of violence or abuse were occurring daily. Major triggers for these incidents included challenging customers for ID when purchasing age-restricted items or encountering shoplifters.

“Nearly a year on, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation and caused a dramatic spike in incidents and we now need action from the Government. We have already seen the Scottish Parliament enact similar legislation through Daniel Johnson MSP’s Protection of Workers Bill.”

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Signatories of the letter include the CEO’s of supermarkets Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, as well as department store Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, sports-chain JD Sports, and other retailers with large high street presence.

Boris Johnson has not yet given a response.

Response from the retail industry

Retail employee Kieran Donnelly told Retail Insight Network: “We run a small shop and post office, only letting in one customer at a time. This makes some very grumpy as they have to queue outside. Probably the worst I’ve seen is when we ask people to wear masks. My dad, who runs the shop, is a 69-year-old diabetic cancer survivor, so if you’re not exempt and don’t have a mask, you can’t come in. Some of the responses to this have been outrageous – you’d think I’d kicked their nan in the head.”

In a statement, BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson OBE said: “The BRC has repeatedly called on the Government to take action and protect our colleagues from harm. Every day, over 400 retail staff are attacked, threatened, or abused in their place of work. Over 150,000 in 2019 and these numbers have been rising during the pandemic. Those attacked are our friends, our family, our colleagues. This cannot go on.

“The recent surge in violence should serve as a wake-up call for Government. Retail workers are playing a vital role during the biggest public health crisis of our time – ensuring everyone has access to the items they need and keeping stores safe for customers and colleagues. And, at what cost? They have been coughed at, spat on, racially abused, threatened with weapons, the list goes on. No one should go to work fearing for their safety, and we hope the Prime Minister will play his part by introducing a new offence for abusing, threatening and assaulting a retail worker.”

Writing for The Times, Dickinson also said: “Retail is about people. The hidden heroes of the pandemic. The millions of people who continue to work tirelessly to ensure we have the best selection of goods available in shops and delivered to our homes. It’s about serving sixty million customers across the country. It’s about every positive conversation with a customer, every person who is helped to find exactly what they need. It should not be about violence or abuse.”

Response from signatories

Multiple signatories of the letter have voiced their support for employee protection in statements and on social media.

On Twitter, Aldi shared the letter as an image and said: “Aldi have joined the BRC today in calling on Boris Johnson for new legislation to better protect our retail colleagues against violence and abuse as has already been done in Scotland.”

Dixons Carphone, who owns Currys and PC World, tweeted an image from the BRC stating that 424 incidents of violence or abuse occur every day in retail, and said: “The rise in violence and abuse against retail staff is linked to enforcing Covid-19 safety measures. These victims are just some of the heroes of the pandemic, ensuring everyone’s safety as they shop. We are calling on Boris Johnson to take urgent steps to protect colleagues.”

Department store chain John Lewis also shared an image from the BRC and said: “We have joined the BRC today in calling on Boris Johnson for new legislation to better protect all retail workers against violence and abuse as has already been done in Scotland.”