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Meet three shop workers manning the front lines to help keep the nation fed

John Jackson

As grocery store staff continue working every day during the coronavirus pandemic, Stephanie Bell asks them what their experiences have been.

‘People were panic buying, the queue was two hours long’

John Jackson is the seventh generation of his family running the well known farm shop Jacksons in Ballynure, Co Antrim which has been serving locals since 1830.

The shop, which has a butchers, home bakery and cafe, has remained open throughout the pandemic.

John (50), who has closed the coffee shop and furloughed the team who work in it, still manages a large staff of 50 people.

He is married to Lynda (44) and has two children, Anna (15) and Sam (13).


Happy family: John Jackson with wife Lynda and their children Anna and Sam

Happy family: John Jackson with wife Lynda and their children Anna and Sam

Happy family: John Jackson with wife Lynda and their children Anna and Sam

"At the start when people were panic buying it was hard to believe what was happening and very hard to keep up with it," he says.

"People were filling their freezers and our queue outside the shop was two hours long.

"Instead of buying 1lb of mince people were buying 5lb, or instead of five chicken fillets they were buying 20.

"That all stopped thankfully but now we are finding customers maybe have lists for five different people as they are shopping for their parents and grandparents and other vulnerable people.

"That means orders are still quite big and it takes longer to get each customer through the shop."

John says his staff were understandably nervous coming to work in the early days of lockdown, but safety procedures have enabled them to feel safe and to continue to serve their customers.

"When lockdown came there was a bit more panic among the staff who were worried if they were safe," he explains.

"There were a few who went into self-isolation for a fortnight to get their heads around it and I suppose from my point of view that's just what they felt they had to do.

"The rest of the workforce has just kept on going as everyone in the team knows that people need us - they need to buy food."

John has put screens up to protect staff and those who have most direct contact with the public have been provided with face shields.

Every customer coming into the shop is asked to use hand sanitiser at the door and the numbers allowed inside have been restricted.

One issue he has been able to overcome was food supply after the closure of the live farm market in Ballymena.

His own family farm has supplied Jackson's for years and continues to, and John is also taking supplies from other local farmers.

Overall, he says customers are happy to queue for food and have appreciated the efforts of all his staff in helping keep the shop open.

He adds: "We are constantly busy and thanks to the weather people have been happy to stand in line because the sun is shining and it gets them out of the house and into the fresh air.

"A lot of our customers have thanked us for keeping the shop open and that is very uplifting, knowing that people appreciate it."

And John and his family are taking strict precautions at home, too.

"My wife worked as a nurse so she is pretty in tune with what is going on and what we need to do to keep safe as a family," he says. "I make sure to take my work clothes off and I am washed before I go home every night."

‘I think we are the same as any other vital service, people need groceries’

Co Down shop assistant Edita Zaiceva is worried every day going home from work in case she carries the virus to her family. Every night before she gives hugs, kisses or has any contact with her children Lidija (12) and Pijus (9), Edita showers and washes her work clothes.

She will then sanitise any door handles or items in the house she has touched on her way to the bathroom.

Edita (35) and her husband Andrej (34) both work in vital services.

Edita is a full-time shop assistant in Moutray's Costcutter shop in Dollingstown, Co Armagh, and Andrej is a delivery driver.


Edita Zaiceva shop assistant

Edita Zaiceva shop assistant

Edita Zaiceva shop assistant

The couple, who moved here from Lithuania 15 years ago, live in Dromore with Edita's mum Rima (56), who has heart and spine health problems which means she's especially vulnerable to Covid-19.

Protecting her family against the virus is a priority for Edita. And she is grateful that her employer has implemented measures to help keep the staff as safe as possible - but she fears some customers don't appreciate the risks. "Our shop isn't big but there are only six full-time staff so we can keep a safe distance from each other most of the time," she says.

"We only allow 10 people into the shop at a time and we have screens at the tills. Sometimes it can be difficult if you are packing shelves and a customer leans over you to get something.

"Some people just don't seem to realise how difficult it is for us as shop workers.

"I had to ask two teenagers who were standing together and too close to the till to please respect social distancing and they got really angry with me and asked to speak to the manager.

"I find our older customers have more appreciation of the risks.

"It is scary for me as I don't want to bring the virus home. I am doing everything I can to protect my family.

"I don't even allow the kids to play in the front garden so that they have no contact with other kids nearby."


All smiles: Edita with husband Andrej and children Lidija and Pijus

All smiles: Edita with husband Andrej and children Lidija and Pijus

All smiles: Edita with husband Andrej and children Lidija and Pijus

Working full-time with two children who are at home instead of at school has been a challenge.

Edita has to cook meals the night before so that the children can heat them in the microwave for their lunch. After a day working from 8am until 6pm she also spends a large part of her evenings and weekends helping her children with schoolwork.

She says: "My mum has underlying health issues and can't do very much. The kids are very good and can get their own breakfast.

"They try to do as much schoolwork as they can during the day but there is a lot of it they need help with, so I do that when I come home from work.

"My husband is working harder than ever and now only gets home around three or four nights a week."

While many people are working in a variety of jobs to keep vital services going, Edita does feel that the risks shop assistants are taking going to work is not recognised enough by the general public.

"I think we are the same as any other vital service as so many people need to do their grocery shopping," she says.

"We are also taking orders over the phone and doing a delivery service for people who are housebound.

"Most of our customers are regular and are really appreciative."

‘We’ve had letters, chocolates and even flowers from appreciative customers’

As manager of the Lidl store in Larne, Craig Geary not only had to deal with his own concerns working during the pandemic but also those of his team. The 28-year-old, who is engaged to Rebecca Kirkpatrick and has a 15-week-old daughter, Evie Mae, admits that initially he was nervous but, thanks to a good team spirit and the correct protective measures, his fears have been eased.


Safety first: Craig Geary

Safety first: Craig Geary

Safety first: Craig Geary

Craig has worked his way up from customer assistant to manager during his five years with Lidl. He manages a team of 15 and plans to take on more staff in the next few weeks because the shop has been so busy during the lockdown.

"There was a degree of nervousness at the start due to how quickly the situation was developing and because it was so different to anything we had ever experienced before," he reveals.

"There was definitely some fear among the team due to the numbers of customers who would be coming in and out of our stores daily. However, we have a very good team spirit in the Larne store and we really did recognise that we are all in this together.

"We have a responsibility to serve the community of Larne and my team have really risen to that challenge."


Craig Geary, fiancee Rebecca and daughter Evie Mae

Craig Geary, fiancee Rebecca and daughter Evie Mae

Craig Geary, fiancee Rebecca and daughter Evie Mae

Craig says that every team member was asked to share their views on what would make them feel safer at work.

This two-way communication between staff and management has helped everyone feel better about coming in to do their job.

He says: "The company has been very open to hearing from absolutely everyone on how they would feel more comfortable working in stores.

"We listened and responded with so many measures such as security for our store to help us manage the numbers coming in, protective equipment for us and getting us a constant supply of hand sanitiser. I was delighted that we were able to give everyone their own personal supply, we really couldn't have asked for more."

As the store welcomes old and new customers during the pandemic, Craig says most people do appreciative the risks staff are taking to keep the store running.

"We have had overwhelmingly positive feedback from the local community," he acknowledges.

"We have a great group of regular customers, who we know well, but we have also noticed an increasing number of new faces coming in.

"We were praised for how quickly we implemented safety measures for customers also and I definitely think word spread around the community and people knew they could trust coming to us to do their shopping safely.

"We've received so many letters from customers, boxes of chocolates for the team and even today one of the customer assistants got a big bunch of flowers from someone.

"It really has been lovely to see the positive comments from our shoppers and we are really humbled by the reaction we are getting."

On a personal note, with a baby and fiancee at home, Craig says he is taking every precaution to keep them safe.

"Like many people, of course you are worried that you can pick the virus up but we have so many safety measures in place so we are as protected as we can be," he says.

"At the end of the day we have a job to do and that is to continue to feed the community. We had a lovely letter from a customer which said we had become 'the critical support in the war against an enemy that has no face' - that really sums it up for me."

Belfast Telegraph