Grocery Shopping in a Pandemic

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

By Angus Huntley

Newcastle Vision Support

As the Covid pandemic became a reality in the UK in March and the world as we knew it began to change, things became increasingly difficult for people with sight loss such as myself. I am totally blind and a guide dog user, and even before lockdown, everyday tasks such as shopping were becoming increasingly difficult.

As far as food shopping was concerned, I had previously done a mixture of online and actual food shopping - usually in smaller supermarkets near to where I work and my home. As people started to panic-buy it became increasingly difficult to get the bare essentials, to the point where I had to negotiate with the owner of a local corner shop for him to keep me a loaf of bread! I find it incredible to think this could happen in the UK in 2020 where there really should be enough food for everyone!

Thankfully, I did not notice any of my local shops trying to profit out of the situation by dramatically increasing prices, but it was impossible to find certain things: toilet roll, dried pasta, rice and tinned tomatoes are the things I remember not being able to get.

Towards the end of March I was starting to change how I cooked and ate, planning meals more carefully, rationing portion sizes, and only using the amount I needed I.e. using half an onion rather than a whole one, or half a tin of tomatoes and keeping the rest for another meal in a plastic container in the fridge. In some ways, this was probably no bad thing, but it’s deeply disturbing if you have a disability such as I do, and you honestly don’t know how you're going to get your next lot of food shopping.

I set up a Tesco online account in June 2019 and started doing some online food shopping with the Tesco app. This was mainly for convenience, and also because my life was becoming ever more hectic. I therefore thought that online food shopping would be the answer during these strange times but was horrified when I found there were just no slots to be had. I spent multiple evenings trying to find available online slots, and even tried logging in to the app in the middle of the night to try and secure a slot. Those slots which I did manage to secure were more by good luck than good management., On one occasion, a work colleague messaged me at 7am to let me know there were slots available.

You can imagine my relief then when I heard that supermarkets were going to prioritise vulnerable people, giving them priority for delivery slots, and also imagine my horror and increasing frustration when I found out that a totally blind person wasn’t classed as vulnerable according to the Government’s guidelines issued to supermarkets. At that point, I felt completely let down and abandoned, and it was rather worrying to say the least.

I did however write to my MP to put my case, explaining that people with sight loss should be eligible for priority slots, since it was impossible for us to adhere to social distancing regulations when queuing to get into supermarkets and shops. I explained that it was challenging for us to obtain help with our shopping from staff who were either told not to help us, or who were nervous of doing so due to fear of becoming infected.

I did receive an acknowledgement from my MP, but to date, no official correspondence from DEFRA, the Government department whose responsibility this is.

In May I was advised of a special number I could contact Tesco on to try and secure priority slots for shopping. Thankfully I was successful, however this was not an easy process. Since registration it has been much easier to get online shopping and has made life much less stressful.

For me, as a totally blind person, I find the Tesco app to be very accessible and easy to use, but this isn’t always the case. Prior to lockdown, when trying to set up an account with another major supermarket using their app, I was unable to complete the registration process due to the field used to input my phone number being completely inaccessible, resulting in me being digitally excluded by default. While it’s possible this problem may have been fixed, this illustrates the fact that digital services need to be accessible to everyone otherwise they are simply not inclusive.

This does make me wonder whether inaccessible apps or websites have resulted in some people being unable to access food and other basic essentials.

I’m also left wondering why the issue of priority slots for vulnerable people wasn’t addressed earlier, and more importantly, just how many disabled people are out there who have fallen through the cracks and have gone without food and other household essentials as a result.