At the end of March, the Government published guidelines advising shops on how to operate during the pandemic. We explain what that means for you and provide some advice on supermarket shopping at the moment.
Should you wear a mask and gloves?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that healthy people need not wear masks, unless they are caring for someone who is infected. The policy in the UK is the same, with only healthcare workers advised to wear them.
But like so many things during the outbreak, official advice may shift as new evidence is presented. On Monday, Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor said that the current UK policy on masks is under review.
This is what we know now. The only masks that are known to be highly effective against the transmission of Covid-19 are medical N95 respirators. These are in short supply and are needed by healthcare workers who come into contact with many potentially infected people every day.
Other kinds of masks, such as surgical masks and cloth masks, may help to limit the spread of infection.
Homemade, cloth masks can limit the likelihood of respiratory droplets spreading from person to person. If someone is already infected with the virus – even if they are not showing symptoms – wearing a homemade mask may limit the number of people they will infect. It will do very little to protect a healthy person.
Of course, if you have any physical symptoms, you should be self-isolating and not going out in public.
A surgical mask may be somewhat more effective. If it is coupled with hand washing, social distancing and other hygiene measures, it may help to reduce the spread of the disease. However, health officials warn that failing to use a mask properly (failing to throw away single use masks and to wash hands afterwards) can actually be a cause of infection.
To watch the WHO’s video, learn more about manufactured masks and find out where you can buy them, read our article on where to buy a mask online.
The answer on whether or not to wear gloves is much simpler. Don’t.
People tend to become infected by inhaling infected droplets or by transferring the virus to their face after touching an infected surface. Wearing gloves will not stop this kind of transmission. The gloves themselves will also harbour microbes and when you come to remove them, you are likely to contaminate your bare hands.
All gloves will do is create a false sense of security. The best method of protecting your hands is to thoroughly wash them.
Take hand sanitiser and bags
Some supermarkets have clean stations so you can sanitise the handle of your trolley or basket, while others have a staff member wiping them down between use. But it’s best to be prepared. When you’re shopping, you should try to touch as few things as possible.
Take bags with you so you don't have to pick up any in the shop. After you’ve touched the trolley or basket for the last time, use your sanitiser to clean your hands.
Be prepared for a bit of strangeness
Many people in stores – both shoppers and staff – will be wearing masks. Screens have been installed to protect everyone. Safe to say, it has created a bit of an odd atmosphere. The best thing to do is to be calm and organised and keep your distance from other shoppers.
In spite of markers on floor and distancing in queues, people are still forgetting to leave space while collecting food. Distancing applies at all stages of the shop. This may mean you need to take your shop a bit more slowly as you should avoid picking up an item if it means getting close to another shopper.
You should also be prepared to nominate one member of your household to shop. Some supermarkets will only allow one person per household to go in, so they can get as many shoppers as possible through safely and ensure that people are keeping their distance.
Take only what you need
The Government has advised supermarkets to request that shoppers only “buy what they need”. Even if your shop hasn’t specifically asked this of you, it’s wise advice.
Most shops have relaxed the initial rules on only buying one or two of each key items but there are exceptions. In some supermarkets, there are still limits on the amount of in-demand items you can purchase, including toilet paper, hand sanitiser and pasta.
So if you haven’t been able to buy the things you need, it’s tempting to try to stock up when you finally see them again. But this will only exacerbate problems.
The supermarkets’ supply chains are coping well at the moment. Problems arose after they had to adapt to the fact that most people are eating 100% of their food at home. Ordinarily, people eat out or in the workplace or in school for 50% of the time, which represents a huge change in buying patterns.
People have also changed the type of food they buy as they have more time to cook at home. Home baking has become a big trend and baking supplies are still consistently selling out quickly.
So, the more we keep our shopping patterns consistent, the fewer problems we'll all have. But supply chains will struggle every time that consumer behaviour changes en masse. That means that if people suddenly fear that they won’t be able to buy rice, and decide to buy as much as they can at the same time, it’ll create a perceived rice shortage. Even the people who have more than enough at home will want to buy more if they can, to protect themselves from future shortfalls.
It’s a bit like cars on a motorway creating a traffic jam out of nothing when everyone slows down at the same time.
That’s why it’s good to…
Create a Lego-style shopping list
If you’ve created a shopping list around a number of dishes that require specific ingredients, you could have problems. For example, if you’ve planned to cook a lasagne and then find out halfway around the supermarket that sheet pasta is sold out, you will have to rethink your list mid-shop.
Instead, try to meal plan using Lego-style purchases that you can put together in different forms. If instead of buying ingredients for a lasagne, you buy mince and a bolognese sauce, you could make spaghetti, chilli, meatballs or a cottage pie, depending on which other staples are available.
Plan for a one-way system
Tesco has implemented a one-way system in its shop and all supermarkets will encourage you to go through, once only, taking a logical route. This allows the supermarket to ensure that there is adequate space between people as they’re let into the shop. But it may mean you can’t turn back for items you’ve forgotten, or to get replacement items should other recipe ingredients prove to be unavailable.
If you know the layout of your shop, try to structure your shopping list in the same order, so you know what to get in each section. And, metaphorically speaking, try not to put all of your eggs in one basket. Don’t create a number of meal plans that all rely on being able to get hold of flour, or pasta. Be ready to substitute ingredients and come up with new meal ideas.
Don’t touch unless you are buying
Food and food packaging are considered to be very low risk in terms of transmitting the virus. But this is not the time to examine packaging information before you buy or squeeze all of the grapefruit to find the juiciest one. In the same way that it’s now good etiquette to keep your distance from other people, you should also avoid handling foods and returning them to the shelves.
When you get home, empty your bags, wash your hands and wipe down packaged products as you put them away. Fruit and vegetables can be rinsed as usual. You do not need to take extra precautions with them. Finally, wash your hands again.
Get ready to queue
If you’re going to the supermarket, don’t expect to be in and out quickly. Be prepared to queue. At peak times, in some places, people are queuing for an hour or more while shops are implementing a one-in one-out policy.
Most people are still organising their days around traditional working hours, so you’ll still find it busier on a Saturday morning or a weekday lunchtime.
Check quiet times and vulnerable-shoppers-only periods
Your supermarket may set aside time for vulnerable groups to shop. Unless you’re elderly, pregnant or in another high-risk group, there may be times when you can’t access your supermarket. Waitrose, for example, dedicates its first hour after opening each day to priority shopping for vulnerable groups. If you are a carer or are shopping for a vulnerable person, you may also be able to use the supermarket at this time.
Check your local supermarket’s website in advance to see if they are holding these sessions.
You can also Google your local supermarket. If Google has enough data on the branch, it will show you popular shopping times, so you can plan your trip and cut down the queuing to a minimum.
Avoid paying by cash
The best option for everyone at the moment is to pay by card. Using cash means more contact with staff or self-service tills and it’s better to touch as few things as you can. To make contactless shopping easier, on April 1st, the British Retail Consortium raised the contactless limit from £30 to £45.
You will also find that many delivery services will not accept cash at all for the time being. If you want to tip delivery drivers, look out for the option to add a tip at the checkout.
Look out for floor markers
In addition to the new Perspex screens, you may also see new floor markers, which show you the distance you should keep from other shoppers and staff members. Remember that staff are there all day and want to limit contact with people as much as possible, so try not to approach them unless you really need help.
If you want to know what your online options are, read our guide on which online shops are still delivering in the UK.