An online petition has been gathering signatures in support of Holland & Barrett (H&B) staff who are calling for the retail giant to close its doors, citing a lack of protection against the coronavirus for employees serving the public. But since going live, the lobby has attracted criticism from other H&B staff members, who contradict its claims.
The petition – hosted on change.org and aimed at H&B CEO Tony Buffin, along with the chain’s directors – has received more than 6,700 signatories since the campaign began running in late March.
Among the businesses deemed by the Government as ‘essential’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, Holland & Barrett’s stores have remained open to sell, among other things, special diet food items and VMS. But one staff member, listed on the petition as ‘HD’, has called for store closures after describing ‘these past couple of weeks’ as ‘very difficult’ and accusing the retail giant of failing to provide adequate protective equipment for its employees.
“Being on the front lines, dealing with customers day in and day out, increases the chances of the virus spreading rapidly. The company has not been providing us hand washes, anti-bacterial gels and other form of protection to reduce the chance of catching the virus. The stores need to be closed, so we not only keep ourselves safe but also the nation. All we want is to be safe and be with our loved ones during this period of crisis,” HD writes.
The company has not been providing us hand washes, anti-bacterial gels and other form of protection to reduce the chance of catching the virus. The stores need to be closed, so we not only keep ourselves safe but also the nation
“Many of us travel to work using the public transport which is dangerous enough as it is. We deal with a variety of customers every day including the customers who are most at risk. It is our job as a society to protect those who are vulnerable and close the stores so we have a better chance in preventing coronavirus from spreading.
“Please close the stores, to prevent many more lives at risk and many more deaths,” the plea concludes.
Defending its position, a spokesperson for H&B issued the following statement of reply: “In these unprecedented times the safety of our teams and customers is of paramount importance. We have provided gloves, masks and hand sanitiser to all of our store colleagues and are also installing shielding screens at the counter … and following all other safety advice.
“We have asked all colleagues who have any concerns about these safety measures or who need more gloves, masks or sanitiser provided to contact us urgently on a dedicated colleague helpline.
“In addition to this, social distancing is also being enforced with clear guidance in store. We have limited the maximum number of customers allowed the stores at any one time, dependant on store size, and tape has been installed marking out a two-metre distance from the tills with clear signage throughout stores. The contactless payment limit has also been increased to £45 in the UK (€50 in ROI) from 1 April and we are encouraging all customers to scan and bag their own items where possible, with guidance from store staff. We have also closed stores temporarily where we can serve local communities from fewer locations.”
The spokesperson goes on to outline its protocols around staff who may need to self-isolate: “Any colleague self-isolating under government guidelines because of symptoms, or symptoms in someone they live with will receive full pay for the recommended self-isolation period. We have also written to those colleagues who have identified themselves as vulnerable to offer options for working from home. If this is not possible they will receive full pay for up to the 12 week isolation period. For any colleagues showing no symptoms, and who hasn’t identified themselves as falling into the vulnerable category, but who doesn’t feel comfortable coming into work despite these safety measures, we will continue to employ these colleagues, and offer the options of statutory sick pay, TOIL or holiday pay.
In these unprecedented times the safety of our teams and customers is of paramount importance. We have provided gloves, masks and hand sanitiser to all of our store colleagues and are also installing shielding screens at the counter
“We are working around the clock to ensure our teams are as safe as possible whilst staying open to meet the needs of our customers. As a health, wellness and speciality food retailer, 90% of what we sell is food, vitamins and food supplements, which many of our customers rely on to manage their dietary or underlying conditions. We are bolstering our online capacity as quickly as possible so customers can order from home where possible and have set also up a new customer phone line for those customers who cannot access our website for home delivery. We strongly encourage our colleagues to use our dedicated helpline if they have any questions.”
The campaign has been picked up by the BBC which ran a story on 7 April, after which there appeared to be a significant spike in signatures, almost doubling the support for the chain to temporarily cease trading from its 850 physical UK and Ireland stores.
Commenting on the story anonymously, one H&B staff member approached NPN to contest statements made in the petition, saying they ‘do not reflect the situation’ in his area. “Our tills have been fitted with Perspex screens and the average customer is purchasing either vegan/gluten-free food for several days, or multiple months’ supply of vitamins and minerals, for everything from muscle soreness for all the exercise people have time for, to long-term supplements for chronic issues.
“The average transaction value has gone up by more than 60%, while number of transactions had gone down a similar amount. This indicates a very significant decrease in … single ‘stick of liquorice’ sales,” NPN’s source concludes, referencing a comment made by another anonymous H&B staff member to the BBC.
Gary Trickett from the National Association of Health Stores – which represents many of the UK’s 850-plus independently owned health food stores, excluding H&B which is not a member – comments on the wider sector’s commitment to safety: “The NAHS can assure you that independent health food stores are committed to ensuring that both customers and staff are protected in line with strict Government guidelines and that they take their responsibilities regarding hygiene and duty of care very seriously.
“Independent health food stores across the country remain open and many are providing additional community support services including local home deliveries and Call & Collect. The public can be reassured that independent health food stores are proactively supporting their physical and mental wellbeing at this time.”