As demand for deliveries rises at Christmas, many disabled and vulnerable shoppers are finding it hard to secure delivery slots

Isolated, alone and forgotten. That’s how shielding people felt when lockdown was relaxed in the summer, according to a Disability Rights UK survey.

It found that despite rules relaxing, 85% of shielders still felt unsafe going out. Their minds would not have been eased by the government stopping its free food box scheme at the end of the shielding period in August, but still advising them “not to go to the shops”.

However, they were at least able to rely on supermarkets to deliver their shopping.

Having been sent a list of clinically extremely vulnerable people by government, supermarkets issued priority delivery slots, putting shielders first in the queue online. Through summer the arrangement worked. But can clinically vulnerable people still depend on retailers to deliver this Christmas?

“It is unacceptable that disabled people are again struggling to get delivery slots to order food and essentials”

Those on the supermarkets’ vulnerable list were never guaranteed a delivery slot, but after some initial issues, were in the most part able to get them.

That was thanks to a massive ramping up of slot availability across the majors early in the pandemic. Some ringfenced slots for vulnerable people.

As restrictions eased, online’s share of sales levelled off at 12% from a peak of 13.5% [Kantar].

Inundated with desperate calls at the start of the crisis, disability equality charity Scope saw inquiries drop over summer. But now they’re going the other way again.

“Months since the pandemic began, it is unacceptable that disabled people are again struggling to get delivery slots to order food and essentials,” says Scope executive director of strategy James Taylor. “Getting food and essentials cannot wait. And it will get worse over the next few weeks.”

As more of the wider population switches back to online, thanks to “short days, bad weather, new and widespread restrictions and with Christmas coming”, access for the vulnerable is being squeezed again, Taylor adds.


The struggle to access essentials

  • 85% of shielders feel unsafe going outside*

  • 56% of disabled people who need deliveries have not been able to register for priority delivery slots since summer**

  • One in three disabled people have had to wait more than two weeks for a delivery slot**

  • 11% of disabled people wait four weeks or more for a delivery slot **

  • 60% of disabled (not necessarily shielding) people questioned have struggled to access food and necessities this year***

Sources: *DR UK survey; **Scope commissioned Opinium survey; ***Inclusion London survey


Other groups representing clinically vulnerable people agree. “We know people with lung conditions have struggled to access delivery slots, and this could get even harder nearer to Christmas as there is so much demand,” says Sarah MacFadyen, head of policy at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation.

Supermarkets are making some attempts to give vulnerable shoppers an advantage in the clamour for Christmas slots.

Tesco is “continuing to ringfence” slots. At Sainsbury’s, “active” (meaning regular) vulnerable shoppers were given a separate slot release date, which came after that for delivery pass holders, but before non-pass holders. Asda’s vulnerable customers got advanced notice of the priority slot release date, and the supermarket claims all that sought one got one. A Waitrose spokeswoman says a “significant proportion” of its Christmas week slots, which are now exhausted, “have been booked by people classed as vulnerable in the pandemic”. Iceland offers priority slots on a weekly basis.

But none are offering guarantees. Even for the extremely vulnerable, Christmas week slots remain “subject to availability”, with early booking essential. Many are missing out, advocacy groups say. “There are people worried they’ll have no choice but to leave their house to get food this Christmas – risking their health,” says Taylor.

Vulnerable list growing

Compounding the problem is the growing number of people the government is advising to be extra cautious, based on emerging evidence of who is most at risk of serious illness from Covid. Additions in November include those with Down’s syndrome and advanced chronic kidney disease.

A Scope survey of disabled people last week found over half of those who need deliveries had not been able to register for priority delivery slots.

Disability Rights UK is scathing of the government’s treatment of vulnerable people in the second lockdown. “The support offered is disjointed,” says UK policy chief Fazilet Hadi.

Furthermore, “there is less support from supermarkets for food deliveries this time round,” she adds. Asda, for example, having previously offered free priority slots to the vulnerable, has since introduced a charge.

“Despite the extraordinary circumstances, supermarkets don’t appear to be planning for the needs of their disabled customers over Christmas.

“For many shielders, the lack of support from government, supermarkets and others, leaves them increasingly isolated and abandoned.”

Defra says that for shielding people seeking to access food “there are alternatives”, pointing to local authorities and the NHS Volunteer Responders programme. Having “strongly advised not to go to shops” during the second lockdown, under latest guidelines, it adds, they “can go out” to buy food.

If only they felt comfortable doing so. Only 15% of people in DR UK’s survey reported they trusted the government’s advice, and only 13% thought the best available scientific advice was being followed.

While several retailers have introduced volunteer gift cards, so shopping can more easily be done on someone else’s behalf, depending on others is neither desirable nor even possible for many vulnerable people.

“For many shielders, the lack of support from government, supermarkets and others, leaves them increasingly isolated and abandoned”

“I don’t want to be ringing my friends up a few days before Christmas asking for help. They will be busy and have their own things going on. It makes me feel useless. Life is frustrating enough,” says 50-year-old Clare Thompson from Nottingham, who has fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.

Going to a store in person is a frightening prospect for many – and more so now since the dedicated shopping hours lauded at the start of the pandemic have in many cases been withdrawn. Only Tesco, Co-op and Aldi continue to offer the hours, though others claim vulnerable people can go to the front of the queue if there is one.

“We urge food retailers to re-introduce measures such as protected shopping hours to support their vulnerable customers,” says Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams. Alternatives to online ordering have been welcomed by advocacy groups. Morrisons is offering a telephone ordering service to people self-isolating, with a small range of essentials available for delivery the next day. The supermarket this week also introduced a Christmas Dinner for Two Box. “We do not want anyone to get left behind,” said Morrisons CEO David Potts.

But there remains a high risk some will. Having struggled but succeeded in getting delivery slots in December by “going online at 2.30am”, Thompson hasn’t been able to secure one for Christmas week. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. Her experience will not be unique.