Covid19 heroes: the supermarket lorry drivers

Unite shop steward John Evans on delivering food during the crisis

Reading time: 6 min

This week, on the first anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, UNITElive is featuring some of the top stories we have covered on the pandemic and our members’ contributions, concerns and achievements.

Last April, we spoke to Unite shop steward John Evans who is one of the legion of delivery drivers selflessly making sure the nation is supplied with food during the coronavirus lockdown.

In an interview with UniteLive, John, who is also the chair of Unite’s North West region’s health and safety committee, explains what it’s like to be a key part of the country’s response to the Covid19 crisis and the issues workers in his industry are facing.

John says that from the very beginning of the crisis the union has been engaging with employers in road transport to help meet the extraordinary demands the coronavirus has put on the sector, while also protecting the best interests of staff.

He said, “It is an absolute melting pot of issues but we’ve been all over it thanks to the trade union speaking to employers. Companies can’t just get carried away with focusing exclusively on business needs.

“There’s a danger in being classified as a key worker that we’re somehow exempt from safety concerns. Don’t get me wrong we’re not as at risk as our wonderful NHS staff, but we’re certainly exposing ourselves.

“That’s why it’s been so important that our reps made sure measures were in place for social distancing and safety in the workplace. We are lone workers in the main as lorry drivers, however, when you get to a location you’re mixing with people.”

These safety measures include closing drivers rooms, asking drivers to remain in their cabs where possible, using digital record keeping instead of paperwork, putting perspex across serving hatches and issuing PPE such as surgical masks, hand sanitiser and gloves.

John said, “It’s all just really strange. People are in shock. You know they’re looking at each other differently. Everyone’s looking at everyone else and thinking ‘have you got the virus and am I going to catch it?’”

As well as safety measures related to coronavirus, John says Unite reps are focussing on other dangers that are intrinsic to driving, with fatigue being a major issue.

At the beginning of the crisis, the government announced that driving time limits would be relaxed to help deal with added pressure on supermarkets.

While driving times may need to be extended at some point, John said it should be a last resort.

“Even under normal working conditions the biggest problem facing road haulage drivers is fatigue. If it’s not because of long hours it’s because of unsociable hours. Around 70 per cent of the workforce in this sector are classed as night workers,” said John.

“There is a natural fatigue that you have to manage, so extending working hours and reducing rest periods is a dramatic step. Relaxation should be the last choice not the first.”

This is where Unite’s reach across different industries has come into play, John explained.

“What we have said to businesses is that we will work in harmony with them to serve the nation by drawing from the resources within the road transport sector. Sadly other parts of road haulage are shutting down and people are out of work,” he said.

“What we’ve done as a union is network and get the retail businesses to draw in those people that are sat at home. They are on standby to come in and assist retail drivers with the workload, which also ensures they are still in work.”

For supply chain hauliers, who may not have unionised workforces, John said that pressure is being put on supermarkets to ensure that contractors are not risking the safety of their drivers and the general public by exploiting the relaxation of driving time rules.

Drivers, along with retail staff and other essential workers, are paying an emotional toll for going out to work day after day when the rest of the country is in lockdown.

“I’ve got a wife and three school age children, so of course the whole situation is very difficult, even without having to go out and work. In our industry there’s a lot of people like me, even as grown adults we’re quite frightened. To a certain extent we are privileged to be in work and given more work but the worry is still there.”

However, John is clear that Unite is doing its utmost to ensure that drivers are exposed to as little risk as possible.

He said, “There is a lot of good will and cooperation between the union and the employers we work with in this sector at the moment.

“But I have to say our reps have been very quick to get up-to-date and respond and get things in place so our members are as protected as they can be.”

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