THE UK’s grocery sector has in recent days earned deserved praise for responding to the country’s need in some of the darkest times it has faced since the Second World War.

Tens of thousands of jobs have been created by major supermarkets to strengthen supply chains and replenish shelves ravaged by panic buying as fears over coronavirus intensified.

There is evidence, anecdotally at least, that the rear-guard action is paying off, with shelves no longer looking just as bare, albeit there are still shortages of items such as hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial products.

There are signs, too, that initiatives such as giving priority shopping times for NHS workers, and dedicated online delivery slots for vulnerable groups, are having the desired effect.

READ MORE: Scott Wright: Lifeline thrown by grocers is just the job for UK economy

What is concerning, however, are the sacrifices shop workers are seemingly having to make to ensure we can continue to have full shopping baskets and thus the nourishment we need to get through this crisis.

While some grocers are taking well-publicised steps to protect people on the frontline, for example by limiting the number of shoppers allowed in store, installing screens to protect checkout staff, and disinfecting trolleys, it appears that many grocery staff risk being exposed to the virus in more ways than is desired.

That much has become apparent in recent days when venturing to the shops for vital supplies.

One supermarket, it appeared, had yet to impose any formal social distancing measures at all (though I appreciate this may now be in the process of being changed), and, on the part of shoppers, precious little effort was being made to stand sufficiently apart from fellow customers. It was all very unnerving at a time of heightened anxiety over fears of contracting coronavirus, as the rate of infection escalates in the UK.

READ MORE: Scottish tourism industry declares only cash aid can save thousands of jobs

Another store, also operated by a major chain, had put a series of controls in place to limit the spread of the virus.

The aisles were relatively clear (and well stocked), and there were markings on the shopfloor to space out potential queues. But it struck me that many staff continued to be badly exposed, especially those operating checkouts.

With protective screens still not in place in some outlets, it is hard to escape the impression these key workers were putting themselves, and their immediate families, at an unfair risk of infection.

After all, social distancing only goes so far when bank cards or cash have to be handed over. The limit for contactless payments may have risen to a welcome £45, but the reality is households trying to reduce the frequency of trips to supermarkets will likely be spending more than that per visit, meaning that some physical proximity between staff and customer is inevitable. There is also the fear of handling goods that may have been touched by customers who may be carrying the virus, though it must be said staff in many outlets are now wearing gloves.

That key supermarket workers, who in many cases will be earning the National Minimum Wage, are regarded as “low skilled” in terms of their earnings is even more insulting than usual given the risks they are facing.

READ MORE: Distillers eye exports comeback after virus

Not only that, but the huge groups of people who continue to visit public parks, in blatant disregard of Government guidance to stop Covid-19 in its tracks, are mocking the sacrifices shop staff are making to ensure the supply of food, drink and other essential household items keeps flowing.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that protecting staff (and indeed customers) in supermarkets requires an exercise in logistics that is unprecedented in its scale and complexity. It is also the case that it will take time to roll such measures out, particularly in cases where retailers are operating huge portfolios of store estates around the UK.

For the most part, the grocery sector has risen to the coronavirus challenge with aplomb. It has undoubtedly stepped up efforts to feed the nation precisely when we need them most. And that applies equally to independent convenience stores, which do not have the same level of resources enjoyed by their bigger rivals.

We must hope, however, that the heroes on the grocery frontline are not asked to suffer unduly as the crisis unfolds.