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Charities demand 'urgent action' for vulnerable customers struggling to access food

Published on 04 June 2020 08:57 AM

A group of leading charities has called on the Scottish Government and supermarkets to take urgent action to ensure that vulnerable customers are given more support to access essential food supplies.

Action on Hearing Loss Scotland, Age Scotland, Carers Scotland, Guide Dogs Scotland, RNIB Scotland, Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded, and Which? have come together to raise the ongoing challenges faced by people with disabilities, are older and those who are more vulnerable through this crisis.

In a letter to the First Minister, the group makes the following calls on the Scottish Government and supermarket retailers:

  • Supermarkets to work with the Scottish Government to ensure all vulnerable consumers, of any age, and their carers receive the support they need to access food. This should be consistent across the industry and clearly communicated to all customers, not just relying on online communications and with new customers not excluded from registering.
  • Supermarkets to build on the steps they have already taken and adapt services to better meet the needs of older and disabled people.
  • The Scottish Government to involve our organisations in work it is undertaking to identify those in need to prioritise them for home deliveries or support with getting food supplies, and therefore keep them healthy and protect the NHS from avoidable admissions
  • Improved coordination between the Scottish Government and local authorities, the food industry and local charities so that all options for providing food deliveries – from supermarkets to local shops and volunteers – are fully exploited.
  • The charities acknowledged the efforts that supermarket have made since the beginning of the crisis, including an hour set aside for older customers, those with disabilities and their carers, and priority online delivery slots.

Research by the charities has found that two and a half months into the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of customers across Scotland are still reliant on food parcels as they cannot access supermarkets in person or online.

A recent Age Scotland survey of older people found 32% of respondents struggled to get food from a supermarket and 39% faced difficulties getting an online delivery.

One in five respondents to a RNIB survey said they have had to ration food during the current lockdown period.

A survey by Carers UK & Carers Scotland found 64% of carers had some or significant problems accessing basic necessities.

As lockdown eases and fewer people are self-isolating, the charities have raised concerns that the situation could become more acute for those who are most at risk from coronavirus and their carers, making it even more challenging for them to access essential supplies.

Kirin Saeed from Edinburgh, who is registered blind, said:

"I've found myself limiting the food I eat as I'm never that sure when my next food delivery will be. I have a paid carer who lives some distance away and I'm conscious I don't want to burden her with too much shopping. Also, as I'm in the black and minority ethnic group and possibly more vulnerable to the coronavirus virus, I need to limit contact with others.

"If I went to a shop myself social distancing would be a massive problem. Touching things to ascertain what they are would, too. Blind people live in a world where touching things is important - but how long does the virus stay on things we touch?

"I don't think this situation is going to change anytime soon. Everyone's scrambling through the here and now - but what about the here and after? There will still be social distancing. The hope I have is that shops and supermarkets agree a standardised policy for customers with sight loss, so that we know how to safely get around shops and so do staff. That would be the best way forward for everybody."

Brian Sloan, Chief Executive of Age Scotland, said:

"It is extremely concerning that two and a half months since the start of the COVID pandemic there are still tens of thousands of older and vulnerable people who are surviving on food parcels.

“There are half a million over 60s in Scotland who don’t use the internet. They can’t book online delivery slots. Our recent survey of older people’s experience of the COVID pandemic showed that 32% of respondents had difficulties getting food from a supermarket.

“While we recognise the work done by the supermarkets at the start of this crisis to help customers, the system is still far from perfect. It is vital that improvements are made. Too many older people are still struggling but we have faith that the Scottish Government and the retailers can fix this.”

Caroline Normand, Which? Director of Advocacy, said:

“Almost three months into the lockdown we have continued to hear from many high-risk or vulnerable Scots who have faced huge difficulty accessing the basic food and provisions they need because they have been shielding or self-isolating.

“Without easily accessible and clearer information for these people, and stronger coordination between the UK and Scottish governments, there is a risk that many will go hungry during this pandemic.”

-- Ends --

Notes to editors:

Further Case Study: Read Vicky Haylot's story here

Letter to the First Minster

Dear First Minister

Joint letter from charities representing disabled people, older people, unpaid carers and consumers regarding access to food for vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis

Collectively as organisations, we are in contact with thousands of people with long-term conditions and disabilities, older people, and their unpaid carers on a daily basis. Our primary concern is to provide them with the most up to date information and support during what is a very difficult time.

While we recognise the efforts of supermarkets and the Scottish Government to ensure access to food, we are concerned that we are still hearing regularly of people at greater risk of illness and infection who are unable to access support from their local authority or delivery slots from supermarkets.

It is right that clinically extremely vulnerable people are being prioritised, and those who are shielding have a clear official route to access support. However, we want to work with the Scottish Government and supermarkets as a matter of urgency to make sure everyone can access essential food, especially those who do not have friends, relatives or neighbours to rely upon.

We understand supermarkets are experiencing unprecedented demand and are working around the clock to feed the nation. While we all adapt to follow the latest guidelines, thousands of people across Scotland who have sensory and physical disabilities, mental health issues, and unpaid carers already face access issues which can make going to the supermarket challenging or impossible even in normal circumstances.

COVID-19 is compounding existing barriers to accessing essential food for many of these people. Others that would not normally be considered or self-identify as vulnerable, are now finding themselves in need of support.

Below we have listed the actions that we collectively believe would provide the most benefit to those who need more support to access food during this pandemic:

1. Supermarkets to work with the Scottish Government to ensure all vulnerable consumers, of any age, and their carers receive the support they need to access food. This should be consistent across the industry and clearly communicated to all customers, not just relying on online communications and with new customers not excluded from registering. One way to make progress on this would be to set up a referral system, similar to the UK Government scheme which allows someone who is not shielded but who is vulnerable in another way to be referred by their local authority to a priority delivery slot. Not everyone with a disability or at increased risk, or who is providing unpaid care will require or use priority services, but this approach means no one that cannot access supermarkets will be excluded or forgotten about. The Scottish Government should echo messaging from several supermarkets encouraging those who don’t absolutely need home delivery to shop in store instead to reduce demand on what we know is a stretched and limited service.

2. Supermarkets to build on the steps they have already taken and adapt services to better meet the needs of older and disabled people, in the following ways:
• Enable customers that are digitally excluded to place orders by phone, and advertise this service in various accessible ways.
• Introduce automated processes online and on the telephone if not already in place, to enable customers (new and existing) to register as vulnerable.
• Ensure their staff are aware of the spectrum of disability, including hidden disabilities, and their responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled people, their families and carers contacting them and in store.
• Review the cost and supply of essential items as the pandemic progresses.
• Consider specific dietary requirements, including where a child or adult with autism or a learning disabilities has strong preferences for a narrow range of food, to allow for more than set maximum amounts to be purchased.
• Allow disabled customers and their carers to visit stores together, and carers or volunteers to shop or collect on behalf of a vulnerable person.
• Staff should be made aware that young carers and young adult carers are often shopping for a vulnerable relative and should be supported to do so.

3. The Scottish Government to involve our organisations in work it is undertaking to identify those in need to prioritise them for home deliveries or support with getting food supplies, and therefore keep them healthy and protect the NHS from avoidable admissions. It is important that this identification is done in a nuanced way, sensitive to people’s circumstances and their existing support system or lack of, as well as their health condition/s. As charities, we are well placed to support this.

4. Improved coordination between the Scottish Government and local authorities, the food industry and local charities so that all options for providing food deliveries – from supermarkets to local shops and volunteers – are fully exploited.

Based on the reports we are continuing to receive from older and disabled people and their unpaid carers we are aware of the following problems:

Many people are facing long waits for both delivery slots and hours on hold to get through to supermarkets on the phone to try and register as a vulnerable customer.

There is a lack of consistency on how supermarkets treat vulnerable customers – with some only registering those who are shielding as priority customers for online deliveries.

According to a recent Age Scotland survey of older people during this crisis, 32% of respondents struggled to get food from a supermarket in person and 39% struggled to get online delivery.

A RNIB survey found that 74% of blind and partially sighted people reported being concerned about getting access to food during lockdown, 21% said that they had had to ration food and 67% had had difficulty finding a timely supermarket delivery slot.

According to recent research by Carers UK & Carers Scotland, 70% of carers in Scotland are spending more on food e.g. because of getting food deliveries or having fewer choices about what to buy. It also found that 64% of carers are having some or significant problems accessing the basic necessity of food.

This is altogether a very distressing and confusing situation for many disabled and older people, and their carers. While we appreciate all the effort made thus far, we believe urgent action is needed to address the problems people continue to face. We hope this insight can help to facilitate further progress. We would welcome a meeting to discuss how we can support both the Scottish Government and supermarkets to enable those people that need support to access it as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Brian Sloan – Chief Executive, Age Scotland
Caroline Normand – Director of Advocacy, Which?
Fiona Collie – Policy & Public Affairs Manager, Carers Scotland
James Adams – Director, RNIB Scotland
Mark O’Donnell, Chief Executive, Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded
Niall Foley – Policy, Campaigns and Engagement Manager, Guide Dogs Scotland
Teri Devine – Director, Action on Hearing Loss Scotland

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