Coronavirus: Is it safe to be receiving delivery packages and should you even be shopping for non-essential items online?

The ‘likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low’, World Health Organisation states

Sabrina Barr
Thursday 16 April 2020 10:25 BST
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Since being placed under lockdown on Monday 23 March, many people in the UK have had to acclimatise to spending the majority of their days cooped up in their homes.

Adapting to this temporary way of life has meant having to give up most of our everyday activities, such as going to the pub, hanging out with friends and going shopping.

While online shopping is already a significant aspect of our lives, it has gained increasing importance during the coronavirus pandemic, with many people relying on online deliveries for their groceries, household essentials and luxury items such as new clothes.

But, considering how much we have yet to learn about Covid-19, some have questioned whether it is safe to receive packages at your home.

So is it safe to accept deliveries at your front door?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that it is currently “not certain” how long the coronavirus can survive on different surfaces.

However, the virus appears to “behave like other coronaviruses”, with research suggesting that coronaviruses are likely to remain on surfaces for between several hours to a few days.

While surfaces that have come into contact with the coronavirus may remain contaminated for a short amount of time, the WHO says that the “likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low”.

Furthermore, according to the organisation, “the risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low”.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tested how long the coronavirus can last on different types of surfaces within a laboratory.

The study concluded that the virus “can remain viable” on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic and steel for up to three days.

Despite the study’s findings, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US states that transmission of Covid-19 to individuals from contaminated surfaces “has not been documented”.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) concurs with this point, saying that Covid-19 is “not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging”.

Public Health England states in a blog post that if a surface has come into contact with a virus, the degree to which it has been contaminated “is likely to have decreased significantly by 24 hours, and even more so by 48 hours”.

On the website for the Royal Mail, the company says that it is “seeking to deliver as comprehensive a service as possible at all times” throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The firm explains that it has reduced the amount of contact that is made between customers and delivery workers, such as by not asking the recipients of packages to provide their signatures on hand-held devices in addition to ensuring staff members following good hygiene practices.​

On Monday 6 April, the Royal Mail introduced new changes to its policies in relation to the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Despite our best endeavours, it is possible that some areas of the country may experience a reduction in service levels due to Coronavirus-related absences at their local mail centre or delivery office,” the Royal Mail said.

The organisation announced it had changed the opening times of its Customer Services Points (CSPs) in local delivery offices, with larger locations being open from 7am to 11am and other locations being open from 7am to 9am. All Customer Service Points will be closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.

“Because more people are home than would usually be the case, we are able to deliver the vast majority of items on the first attempt. This has resulted in fewer people collecting items from CSPs,” the firm said.

The company also temporarily extended the retention period for parcels, and explained that any items that can’t fit through a person’s door will be placed on the floor, before the person delivering the item steps aside to a safe distance.

“In order to protect further both our people and customers, we are temporarily not handing over our hand-held devices to customers to capture signatures,” the Royal Mail stated.

“Additionally, for all customers (including those who are self-isolating) where we need to deliver any parcel that won’t fit through their letterbox, we will place their item at their door. Having knocked on the door, we will then step aside to a safe distance while they retrieve their item. This will ensure the item is delivered securely rather than being left outside.”

For further information on the Royal Mail’s updates with regards to the coronavirus pandemic, click here.

Amazon has also committed to stringent cleaning measures, increasing “the frequency and intensity of cleaning at all sites” and “requiring employees and delivery service partners to clean and disinfect their work stations”.

“According to Public Health England and the World Health Organisation, there is minimal risk of catching the virus via parcels and letters, so it is safe to send and receive these items,” Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, said in a statement sent to The Independent.

“Retailers are constantly reviewing all of their services in line with the latest government guidance.”

Mr Ironside added that “many retailers are continuing online operations to ensure that consumers are able to get access to the products they need during the coronavirus lockdown”.

“Safety of staff remains the highest priority and the operations at warehouses and online delivery hubs strictly adhere to Government guidelines on hygiene and social distancing,” he stated.

Should you clean parcels?

The CDC states that if a surface is “visibly dirty”, it would be “best practise” to clean it and then disinfect as a means of preventing both the coronavirus and the spread of “other viral respiratory illnesses”.

If you are concerned about contaminated or unclean surfaces, you could open your delivery packages outside, in the event that the weather holds up.

You should then dispose of the packaging as quickly as possible.

Should we really be shopping for non-essentials online at all?

During the lockdown, some people may have no choice but to rely on online shopping to help deliver household essentials.

For example, if they are showing symptoms of coronavirus and do not have anyone nearby who can do their grocery shopping, then ordering a delivery from a supermarket is a must-do.

However, for other items, such as clothing, is it necessary that online shopping continue?

The question of whether it is right or wrong to continue buying non-essential items during the coronavirus pandemic does not conjure a black and white answer.

The government recently outlined businesses that it deemed “essential” to stay open during the lockdown.

This list includes supermarkets; pharmacies; petrol stations, home and hardware stores; garages; car rentals; pet shops; corner shops; newsagents; post offices; banks; bicycle shops and laundrettes and dry cleaners.

Online retail “is still open and encouraged”, the government said, while “postal and delivery service will run as normal”.

While these regulations mean that retail brands can continue to operate online, some have stated that it is not safe for them to do so.

Some might also argue that during a pandemic, shopping for a new summer dress should hardly be considered a priority.

Nonetheless, the fact that retailers cannot currently operate in stores means that many need to maintain their online businesses in order to stay afloat.

Fashion and homeware retailer Laura Ashley recently went into administration, stating that Covid-19 “had an immediate and significant impact on trading”.

The downfall of the retail brand meant that 2,700 jobs had been put at risk. The subsequent closure of 70 stores resulted in 721 workers losing their jobs.

On 26 March, fashion brand Next announced it had closed its warehouses after initially opting to keep them open during the lockdown.

The company’s bosses was urged to do so by politicians and members of staff after some workers said they felt pressured into helping with online orders in stores.

“It is clear that many increasingly feel they should be at home in the current climate,” Next said. “Next has therefore taken the difficult decision to temporarily close its online, warehousing and distribution operations from this evening, Thursday 26 March 2020.”

Earlier this month, Next chief executive Simon Wolfson warned that the coronavirus outbreak was going to have a hugely detrimental impact on the British high street, stating: “Our industry is facing a crisis that is unprecedented in living memory, but we believe that our balance sheet and margins mean that we can weather the storm.”

Some have called on other retailers, such as Asos, to follow in the footsteps of Next by ceasing online operations.

The GMB Union, a general trade union with more than 631,000 members, launched a petition calling on Asos to “shut up shop”.

In its petition, the trade union references reports of several ambulance appearances at an Asos warehouse in Barnsley, where “thousands of workers” are reportedly working in a “crowded” environment.

“Retailer Next has agreed to close their local warehouse to keep workers safe — paying all workers in full — using the government’s 80 per cent wage guarantee,” GMB states.

“Now it’s time for Asos to do the responsible thing — and shut up shop.”

When contacted for comment by The Independent, Asos pointed in the direction of a statement released by Barnsley Council with regards to the aforementioned warehouse.

“In response to the concerns we received, our Regulatory Services visited the site on Friday 27th March and found that at the time of the visit there were various social distancing measures in place and at no point did our officer see any member of staff not in compliance with this,” the council said.

“The company is following national government advice in terms of remaining operational, protecting the welfare of their employees and constantly reviewing how additional measures can be introduced where necessary.”

The council added that reports of three ambulances visiting the location on the weekend of 28 and 29 March “have proved to be false”.

When buying an item online, it would be worth looking into the policies of your chosen retailer to see how they are looking after their workers amid the virus outbreak.

Ratula Chakraborty, professor of business management at the University of East Anglia, says it is “important” for “economic activity” such as online shopping “to continue while it’s safe to do so”, as this could prove beneficial the economy.

However, it may be wise to consider your reasoning behind doing online shopping of non-essential items while you are at home. If you could do without the products on your wish list, then perhaps you could save your money to spend at your leisure another time.

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