As a frontline worker in health, social care, and the criminal justice system for 45 years, I was always very aware of the risk of abuse and even assault that often seemed to come with the job. I have long been an advocate of a ‘Not Part of the Job’ campaign from even before a campaign of that name was even launched by USDAW. I had originally seen ‘essential’ as applying to emergency workers, health workers, social workers, and even teachers. But this lockdown has heightened the need to widen our understanding of what an ‘essential worker’ is. Where would we have been without our essential retail workers continuing to work, serve and deliver, often putting themselves at risk, to keep essential shops open throughout the pandemic. They have been ‘essential’ and ‘front line’ in every sense of the words.

They were already at increased risk from the de-funding of the police and other criminal justice services. The reduced ability of the police to respond to shoplifting and threatening incidents has seen a significant rise in shoplifting and a big reduction in any effective response to it. Don’t forget that 70% of stealing is driven by addiction. With many other outlets closed and more people at home, essential shop workers were put at increased risk as people, desperate to fund addiction, targeted the only shops that were open. We have also asked front line shop workers to ‘police’ the sale of some 50 restricted items to the public, and because of COVID, now also ask them to police infection control measures designed to keep us safe such as mask wearing and social distancing. All these measures risk further conflict.

Yes, we need a better response to retail and business crime, and to anti-social behaviour, and I am someone who is keen to play a part in making that a reality. But as we go back into shops this week after a long break, with all the frustrations of ongoing restrictions and social distancing, please be kind to retail workers, and all other essential workers. If we don’t know how valuable they are now, we never will.