Friday 27 March 2020

'People are so thankful': How delivery drivers became the new emergency service

Just a month ago, they were deemed unskilled workers. Now they are essential in the fight to control coronavirus. But what is it like driving down increasingly deserted streets to make sure everyone – including elderly and vulnerable people – has what they need?

Last week, Bob (not his real name) clocked in for a shift at Tesco’s 185,000 sq metre (2m sq ft) depot in Livingston, Scotland. He loaded his HGV with 25 tonnes of food, toilet rolls and toiletries, and drove 25 miles to a Tesco supermarket in Musselburgh. The staff waiting to unload his lorry seemed strung out. The store was heaving, they told Bob. Everyone kept buying toilet paper. It was busier than Christmas.

Bob chatted with them for a bit – he has worked for Tesco for 20 years, so knows everyone on his routes – then got back into his HGV. He drove the 25 miles back to Livingston, reloaded, and drove 88 miles south to Dumfries. It was the same story there: exhausted staff, empty shelves, customers running amok. “It’s mad,” Bob says. “Normally at this time of year, you’d mostly be delivering Easter eggs.”
Greg Howard … ‘They made the decision that I was too unwell to work, but not unwell enough to get paid.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola

But these are difficult times, and our couriers and delivery drivers have become the nation’s lifeline. Down emptied motorways they speed, cargo jolting in a refrigerated hum. In ordinary times, many of us scarcely notice the army of workers bringing us our milk, our eggs, our daily bread. Now, we anxiously watch for them.

“People are so thankful you’re there,” says Colin Dodd, a 62-year-old driver from Romford, east London. He delivers groceries for one of the big four supermarkets. (He prefers not to say which one.) “You can help them. There’s a different culture among the customers. It’s like we’re all on this war footing.”

As the nation hunkers down to ride out the coronavirus pandemic behind closed doors, couriers and delivery drivers bring groceries to elderly people, vulnerable people and those self-isolating or physical distancing. Last week, the food delivery drivers’ critical role in keeping the country fed was recognised when the government added them to the list of the UK’s key workers, alongside doctors, nurses and social workers.

On Monday, announcing the UK lockdown, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, encouraged people to do grocery shops online rather than venturing outside. The unprecedented internet traffic after the announcement meant many major supermarket websites crashed. Watching Johnson talk, Dodd wondered how the supermarket delivery networks could possibly manage. “I expect the army may be involved with the logistics of it all,” he says, “because home shopping vans alone cannot cope … we have 20 deliveries in one van. That’s not even going to cover one street.” But he was also stoical and determined. “We want to step up and be major key workers, and save lives.”

For many of us, coronavirus panic snuck up gradually, before exploding. But delivery drivers had already seen the signs. “The first thing was the loo roll,” says Brendan (not his real name), a 35-year-old Ocado driver from the south-east. At the beginning of March he delivered 180 rolls of toilet paper to a couple living in a small semi. A week later, he had to lug 120 litres of water to a fourth-floor London flat with no lift. “I try not to judge anyone,” he says, “but it’s harder to keep a smile after the sixth journey up the stairs. You feel it’s excessive.”

Many delivery workers are worried about what will happen if they themselves become unwell. Photograph: Alistair Berg/Getty Images
Paul (also not his real name), a 58-year-old Tesco driver from the Midlands, first noticed things were different when he delivered a van full of tinned goods and bottled water in the first week of March. The woman who bought them seemed edgy, and told Paul she was feeling paranoid. Paul is used to people confiding in him on the doorstep – sometimes when he is unpacking their drinks, customers will confess they are alcoholics. So, this time, he told her cheerily: “Everyone is being paranoid – you’re just the first to admit it to me!” But, of course, he was judging her for ordering more food than she could eat in a year. “God knows what that woman is like now,” he sighs.

The day after this, a man opened the front door wearing a gas mask. Signing for his shopping – tins and bottled water – he said to Paul: “You can never be too careful.” Over the next few weeks, the deliveries have steadily got larger and heavier. “All of a sudden, there were tins in everyone’s orders,” Paul says. “Everyone was eating pasta.” As the orders stacked up, the streets emptied out. Paul’s van grew quiet, too. Normally he’d listen to sport on the radio. But all the fixtures had been cancelled.

For delivery drivers, things really started going haywire last week. The government announced that schools would be shutting, the country tuned into daily press conferences, and social media users began posting pictures of bare supermarket shelves. The websites for all the major supermarkets started to crash: delivery slots were unavailable until April, if you could get one at all. Ocado took down its app and then, temporarily, its website, citing a “staggering amount of traffic”.

“It has been mad,” says Becky Gray (not her real name), a driver from Hertfordshire. She works for the courier company Stuart, which supplies drivers to Ocado’s express Zoom service. After the Ocado website was taken down, Ocado Zoom remained operational, and savvy shoppers moved over. Gray worked from 10.30am until late at night most days last week. “Normally, you go to work and you can get a 15-minute or half-hour break between deliveries,” she says. “This has been one drop after another.”

Many workers are worried about what will happen if they become unwell. “They’ve just said: ‘If you get sick, contact us,’” Gray says. She sounds worn out. “We’ve on the frontline, fulfilling their customers’ orders and needs. We’re exposing ourselves to the virus. It would be nice for employers to say: ‘This is what we’re going to do for you if anything happens.’ It’s on the news – stay away from people! But we have to go to their front doors and give them their shopping, and they may not even know they have the virus.” In response, Stuart says the company has created contact-free guidelines for couriers for pickups and drop-offs, and is offering to reimburse up to £20-worth of protective equipment.

Tesco delivery vans leaving their depot. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters
Coronavirus has aimed a spotlight squarely on the precarious but essential nature of gig economy work. “They aren’t doctors and nurses, but they are on the frontline,” says Jason Moyer-Lee of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain. “Couriers and drivers are doing some of the most important jobs around right now, with some of the least protections.” Moyer-Lee calls on the government to extend statutory sick pay to self-employed people: at the moment, only employees of companies are eligible, and virtually all delivery drivers and couriers are self-employed.

As a result, many delivery drivers and couriers face an impossible choice: self-isolate if they believe they have coronavirus, even if that means not getting paid, or risk passing it on to others. Gray says that she would be tempted to carry on working because she needs the money. Stuart says that since 17 March, it has been compensating couriers who have tested positive with Covid-19 and have official verification provided by the NHS. While Ocado says: “We are taking the highest level of safeguarding measures to protect our colleagues, customers and third-party contractors. This includes the distribution of hand sanitiser, wipes and handwashing provisions for Stuart couriers delivering for Ocado Zoom.”

Bob, meanwhile, knows of a driver who got into a confrontation with a store manager last week after the person unloading his van appeared unwell. The sick man had kept working because he was worried he wouldn’t be paid otherwise. Tesco says it offers sick pay from day one for self-isolating staff.
For some of those who do try to do the responsible thing, there can be hefty penalties. “I feel as if I’ve been penalised for being responsible,” says the Deliveroo courier Greg Howard, 32, from Nottingham. 

“They made the decision that I was too unwell to work, but not unwell enough to get paid.” After coming down with a fever and cough, he notified Deliveroo, which suspended his account. He tried to access Deliveroo’s coronavirus hardship fund, but can’t because it requires a doctor’s note – and the NHS is not issuing them. (At present, NHS isolation notes can only be obtained after an individual has been unable to work for more than seven days because of coronavirus.) Deliveroo says it is “committed to providing financial support for riders across the world who are diagnosed with the virus or who are told by a medical authority to be in isolation. We are providing riders with continuous advice, based on expert guidance on how to stay safe, and we will continue to explore other ways in which riders can be supported.”

Like many workers in the gig economy, Howard, who has a newborn baby, doesn’t have savings. His partner is on statutory maternity pay, and money is tight. For the week that he self-isolated, he had no money coming in. “Anyone in the gig economy lives hand-to-mouth,” says Howard. “It’s hard to make enough to live and support yourself, let alone have savings.”

Just one month ago, the home secretary, Priti Patel, announced that the UK would be closing its borders to low-skilled workers including delivery drivers and couriers. Now, they are so essential, they are deemed key workers while the rest of us are told to stay home. It’s a remarkable about-turn. “The government has always shown a disregard for low-paid, precarious workers,” says Moyer-Lee. “And now it is saying they’re important enough to be key workers. But we’re still not seeing the policies we need to protect them, their families and the public.”

Most supermarkets have, however, introduced safeguards for their drivers, including antibacterial wipes and gel, and guidance for no-contact deliveries to customers who are self-isolating. (Drivers leave the items on their doorstep, then back away.) Brendan has been given more time in between drops to sanitise his hands and wipe down the van with antibacterial wipes.

But customers can sabotage this. “Sometimes, people try to grab the shopping from your hands,” Brendan says. “I say: ‘No, I need to put it down, and then you need to pick it up.’ It’s not just about them – I don’t want to get the virus and pass it on to my wife.” Before Tesco changed its guidance, telling drivers not to enter customers’ homes under any circumstances, a few of Paul’s co-workers had been invited in by customers to unpack deliveries. “Halfway through, the person says: ‘Oh, I’m self-isolating because I feel unwell.’ And the driver’s already inside the property,” sighs Paul. “The great British public!”

For the delivery drivers on increasingly deserted roads, there is, unsurprisingly, a sense of unease. “The streets are empty,” says Simon (not his real name), a 40-year-old driver for Sainsbury’s, based in Manchester. “Getting around is easier every day. It’s a weird one … there’s almost a sense of paranoia now. I think: ‘Has someone given it to me? Or am I going to give it to someone?’” When customers tell him they think it’s a big fuss over nothing, Simon smiles and nods. “I shut down the interaction as best as I can because I don’t agree with it.”

They are also anxious for their customers. Dodd is worried about how some of his regulars, who are elderly or unwell, will cope with so many delivery slots sold out. One of his regulars recently messaged him on social media in a panic. She is disabled and can’t get a delivery slot for weeks. Her food is running out. Dodd plans to drop off food to her in his free time. “I don’t mind helping,” he says. “She’s at risk. I fear for her.”

Simon is concerned for the mental health of his elderly regulars who are self-isolating alone. “If I can spare five minutes to talk to an old lady who is lonely I will, even if I have to stand way back on their doorstep,” he says. “You can tell some of these old people are so happy to have someone to chat to sometimes. You worry about how they will feel a few months from now.”

Even if you can get a delivery slot, panic-buying has stripped the shelves so much that many online orders are half-unfulfilled. Delivery drivers see the problems this causes first-hand. Dodd delivered to a young mother last week. “She was in a panic,” says Dodd, because all of the baby formula she’d ordered was missing. “I said: ‘I’m sorry, it’s been stripped off the shelves.’ You could see her anxiety level rocket through the roof.” Another elderly customer, who has arthritis and lives alone, found that all the essentials – bread, milk, loo roll – were out of stock. Dodd was so worried about her he gave her his phone number, and told her to call him if she needed help.

When you’ve seen vulnerable people go without, the behaviour of the stockpiling hordes stings that much more. “People are being selfish,” says Paul. “We’re not thinking about each other.” When he walks through Tesco to collect his deliveries, the shelves are increasingly bare. “It’s getting silly,” he says. “The government is going to have to step in and say: ‘We’re moving to wartime rationing – we can’t trust the public.’”

Brendan hasn’t been able to stop thinking about the couple he delivered all that loo roll to at the beginning of March. At the time, he laughed it off. Now, he feels differently. “Seeing the shortages in the shops, you think: ‘Wow, that’s really selfish.’”

In these unprecedented times, it is hard to overstate the importance of drivers and couriers to those most vulnerable to coronavirus or in its grip. But Paul is modest about it. “I got called an essential service last weekend by a customer,” he says, sounding slightly embarrassed. “I walked away and thought: ‘I am, really.’ In all the time I did this job, I never thought I’d be described as a key worker. You just get to people and sort their food out.” Afterwards, he got back into his silent van, and drove to his next stop, past cars unused in driveways and homes with curtains closed.

• Some identifying details have been changed.

(Source: The Guardian)

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