Waitrose Saxmundham: Early days of the COVID-19 lockdown

The two images that I have uploaded date from 25th March 2020: one day after the UK went into its first and strictest COVID-19 lockdown. The instructions from the government were to stay at home unless strictly necessary, with one outing per day allowed for exercise, and during this early period an air of surreal emptiness hung over towns.
Saxmundham Waitrose had procedures ready to put into place (the government were slow to react and many organisations had spent the week leading up to this making plans for the lockdown that seemed inevitable). To ensure “social distancing”, a phrase that we all learned at that time, numbers in the shop were tightly controlled (to control movement the side entrance by the cafe was closed and remains closed now at the time of writing, 25th March 2023). A member of staff at the entrance counted people in and out to ensure that a maximum density inside was never exceeded; security staff backed them up at the door and wiped down used trolleys before returning them to the racks of those ready to use. This, of course, meant queuing to get in, and we see here a socially-distanced queue with at least two metres between each person. Note, also, the way that there are no couples or groups in the queue: shopping became something that one designated person per family would do, couples being only permitted if one was in the role of another’s carer.
At this stage little was known about the mechanics of COVID’s transmission and while social distancing was stressed, there was no push from the government to wear masks yet (doubtless, in part, because there were not adequate supplies, but doubt about masks’ effectiveness had also been expressed in government circles) and a great deal of stress on hand-washing and the possibility of transmission via infected surfaces. It can be seen that nobody in the queue is wearing a mask; once one got inside, there was much care taken to avoid getting within six feet of somebody else, which caused a lot of waiting at the end of aisles until somebody else cleared the narrow space. (Waitrose here did not institute a one-way system for its aisles; the Tesco across the road did.) In hindsight, of course, one wonders how effective this distancing was without masks; these only became common later in the summer. Meanwhile due to the worry about transmission via surfaces I recall wearing gloves to go shopping; on a couple of occasions, Marigold washing-up gloves, at which nobody batted an eye. The limits for contactless payment went up, so that fewer people had to press buttons on keypads to enter their PIN; when I did have to press buttons or touchscreens I tried to use my left little finger, reasoning that I was least likely to use this for something else.
It took a long time to shop and one tried to go at slack times. The empty car park shows that few people are trying to shop at this time; home working and furlough, of course, made it easier to choose a time that might be less busy. Previously I had made a point of going on Saturday morning to pick up a Saturday Guardian; once the lockdown began I actively avoided that time and had to rely for some months on the internet version of the paper to get the Saturday quiz.
Emphasis on surface transmission meant that we were encouraged to wash our shopping on getting it home. I developed a routine of getting home and triaging my shopping, with the things I would not need for some time going into the garage for 48 hours’ quarantine and things that I needed sooner, or which had to be refrigerated inside, being washed. For months shopping showed faded or darkened marks from being swabbed down with warm soapy water, and the smell of wet soapy packaging is one of the things that brings back memories of this time immediately. Again, one wonders in hindsight how necessary this was. The government, however, were not good at admitting that there were areas in which their guidance was a best guess, and seemed to feel it would be losing face to say that they now knew more and were adjusting their guidance in line with new information.
Things loosened up with time, but this was how the regular food shop looked for some months.

Comments about this page

  • Thank you Christopher. A very important write-up of a time that was so surreal that we already have to remind ourselves what we lived through. Phaedra

    By phaedracasey (28/03/2023)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.