As Wales entered its 17-day Coronavirus ‘firebreak’ lockdown, they implemented a ban on supermarkets selling ‘non-essential items’ in an attempt to restrict the amount of time customers are spending in shops. But since then, tens of thousands of people have signed a petition to reverse the ban, describing it as ‘disproportionate and cruel’, which has prompted the Welsh government to order a review into the ban. Here, Fay Jones, Member of Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire, shares her thoughts…
The confusion which ensued this week around whether sanitary products were deemed essential or non-essential by the Welsh Labour government was only a surface scratch – issues with the ‘firebreaker’ lockdown restrictions have already caused serious problems for the people of Wales.
Whilst curbing the spread of Coronavirus and easing pressure on the NHS during the winter period is essential – I believe the Welsh Labour government has overreached with the banning of non-essential item sales in Supermarkets – an exercise which has disadvantaged many people, and in doing so has disproportionately affected women.
The idea of what constitutes an ‘essential item’ varies from person to person or is dependent on certain circumstances – some of which can be very serious and traumatic indeed.
According to the official list issued to retailers, items such as clothing, including underwear and pyjamas, some baby products, books, stationery and bedding were labelled as non-essential, and therefore off limits to customers.
This has since led to a marked increase in contact from distressed constituents who were unable to purchase items on the so-called banned list, that in their specific set of circumstances, they desperately needed.
One constituent phoned me in tears saying they couldn’t buy underwear for their child who had wet the bed overnight, and another who wanted to buy their son a book to read during the extended half term.
These unfair rules are preventing people providing for their families at an already difficult time.
One of the most serious, and tragic cases I was made aware of was that of a woman and her children who had fled a situation of domestic violence with only the clothes on their backs. I think most people’s common sense would tell them that fresh clothing, underwear, toiletries and bedding were essential to their family in that instance – nonetheless they were turned away from a number of local retailers, who refused to sell the ‘non-essential’ items to them.
By amazing chance, this family reached out to the Bethel Trust, led by a local Conservative activist. One WhatsApp message to the Welsh Conservative Women’s group and she was inundated with offers to source items for the family in question – clothes, shoes, duvets and pillows were all offered within minutes. One smart-thinking woman procured a suitcase to avoid the shame of being seen with their belongings in bin bags.
The women that sprang into action were delighted to be able to help – but as we are all too aware, cases of domestic abuse increased exponentially during the previous lockdown, which means there are undoubtedly women out there who we simply cannot reach.
During the first lockdown, up to three women were killed every week at the hands of a domestic abuser – an even worse scenario would see vulnerable people perturbed and discouraged from leaving life-threatening situations for fear of the obstacles present in doing so.
There has been so much good work done to help those who experience domestic violence and abuse – including the Domestic Abuse Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament. I was honoured to be a part of the Bill – sitting on the bill committee and scrutinising it line by line.
There has also been emergency funding made available to local authorities in England to support families in emergency situations, including those with No Recourse to Public Funds. But these ludicrous rules could act like barriers to those seeking help, taking Wales two steps back.
The Welsh Labour Government has now said that supermarkets and retailers should act with discretion in certain situations. However, I think the last thing anyone in distress wants to do is try to plead with a complete stranger, divulging private and traumatic information in order to purchase ‘off-limits’ goods, and the burden shouldn’t be put on parents to try to justify why they want to provide for their families.
On top of that this means the responsibility is pushed back onto the retailers who will have to decide where to draw discretionary lines – it is completely unfair to expect the public to make these decisions on behalf of the Welsh government.
The debacle over period products yesterday was a perfect example of how these restrictive interpretations cause wider issues, and also how it is often women who miss out in these situations.
We need to do everything within our power to control Coronavirus, but the lockdown in Wales has overstepped the mark by restricting the sale of ‘non-essential’ items.
It shouldn’t be the Government’s role to tell people what they can and cannot buy in the supermarkets, and there is no viable evidence that this ban is based on anything but preventing supermarkets from making more money – and it is the people that suffer as a result.
I’ll tell you what’s non-essential – rules like this.