ONE of the more disturbing crime reports in the Borders in recent months was of a woman who spat at a supermarket assistant in Selkirk, telling the shop worker that she had Covid.  The Spar worker was wearing a mask, but the sheriff was clear in his verdict: “Spitting twice in someone’s face aggravated by mentioning the coronavirus puts the issue of a custodial sentence in no doubt.” The offender was given a 16-month prison term.

Being on the retail front line during the pandemic cannot be much fun. Shortly before Christmas a weary-looking assistant in Tesco told me that he gets regular abuse from customers. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he said.  Before reaching me, he had been serving a woman who appeared to be anticipating Armageddon rather than lockdown. Her elderly companion in a mobility scooter was helping her to pack, setting each item as carefully into the bags as if it were a Ming vase. Despite the queue building up, the till assistant was a model of patience and cheer, and the feel-good effect rippled down the line, putting everyone in a better mood.

As customers grow lax about safety, and shops grow overcrowded, staff are starting to protest against the daily health risks they are obliged to run. With people abandoning masks, refusing to sanitise and licking their fingers before counting out money, you understand why they might be anxious.  READ MORE: Country Life with Rosemary Goring: Snow brings cold comforts Stores are among the riskiest places you can be, in terms of catching Covid. Before the virus had begun spreading as fast as it presently is, a study in England last November showed almost a fifth of infections were linked to a shopping trip.

With the new variant now galloping across the British Isles, it is sobering to reflect that every outing for groceries is like running a gauntlet. Whether you emerge unscathed depends on factors completely out of your hands – namely, other people. Most of us are now schooled in donning a mask, wiping trolleys and sanitising our hands on entering, but once over the door, the threat multiplies.

READ MORE: Country Life with Rosemary Goring: Snow brings cold comforts

Some remain oblivious to social distancing, seeming determined to encroach on your patch. Filthy looks over the rim of a mask make no impression whatsoever. What can you do but step back? Yet while I try to stick to the rules, occasionally I struggle with one-way systems, and find myself backtracking at speed. Taking a wrong turning and discovering you’re going against the flow reminds me of the day when, oblivious to a no-entry sign, I drove down an Edinburgh street to find a tram heading straight for me.

In shops, the people I’ve seen who don’t follow the prescribed route around the aisles are not usually deliberately breaching the code or ignoring the signage, but are elderly and a little bewildered.  Being vintage does not, of course, mean you cannot be carrying the virus, but such slip-ups do not inspire the same outrage as the aggressive attitude of wilful rebels. In this category I include folk taking children around the store, as if they were on a trip to a theme park.

Recent announcements by Morrisons and Sainsbury’s that they will bar anyone not wearing a face covering, without proof of medical exemption, have been swiftly followed by Asda, Tesco and Waitrose. This is to be welcomed, above all by their staff. It is one thing for most of us to do a swift weekly raid for essentials, quite another to be in contact with the public for hours on end. Nor should shop workers have to act as law enforcers.

READ MORE: From a winter wonderland to an ice-bound hell In light of the Selkirk

incident, it’s understandable why someone would hesitate to confront a customer without a mask, or urge them to keep a distance. Some shops say they tell staff not to challenge those who won’t wear face coverings, since it might be for valid medical reasons. Presumably they also don’t want them to run any risk of verbal or physical abuse.  Sadly, that is little comfort for shoppers in their vicinity, and even less for the checkout operative who, despite screens, masks, visors and gloves, has no alternative but to be uncomfortably close to them for as long as it takes to ring through their goods. Since supermarkets have done well during this crisis – and even if they had not – they should have trained security personnel at every branch, to enforce the rules.

Given the level of contact shop staff have with the public, should they be prioritised for vaccinations? All who fall into the higher risk categories, whether by age or medical vulnerability, will already be among the first to receive it. But what about the rest? If staff in care homes and the NHS are getting the jab, should not supermarket workers too?  That’s certainly the argument of Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, whose concerns on this front have been heightened by the recent deaths from Covid 19 of two staff from Tesco in Greenock. Usdaw is also urging a return to the stricter protocols of the original lockdown in March, when, among other measures, the numbers of customers was closely monitored.

In an ideal world, shop workers would be protected ahead of those who can continue to work from home or in isolation until the pandemic is under control. Realistically, in the current race to deploy supplies of vaccine most effectively, I don’t see them being bumped up the queue. Defining who would be eligible would be a mammoth task in itself.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that supermarket staff should be recognised in the same breath as those who work in the NHS. Ask someone what they do, and if the answer is a nurse or doctor, people’s faces tend to light up. If they say they work in Asda, the response tends not to be so enthusiastic. Yet it should. They might not be dealing with patients in intensive care, but now, more than ever, the shelf stackers, online order processors, delivery drivers and those at the tills deserve utmost respect and admiration.  Without them, the cogs of our lives would cease to turn within a matter of days, and where would that leave us?