Council complaint logs have revealed extensive public concerns over Covid-19 social distancing measures in supermarkets and convenience stores, despite widespread compliance with the law.

More than 1,000 allegations per month are being made against supermarkets, convenience stores and newsagents related to face-mask compliance alone.

The data, uncovered by RN through Freedom of Information requests, included 6,404 complaints against businesses registered by more than 200 local authorities.

The data, spanning from 24 July to 24 October, showed food retailers were the most complained about business type, followed by restaurants, hair and beauty salons and then pubs and bars.

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Councils representing 26.8% of the UK population provided the names and addresses of each business.

Extrapolated to the UK’s entire population, the data suggested one in every 16.1 food retailers in the UK has been reported to their local council, rising to one in 13.7 symbol group stores and one in every 7.8 of the big four supermarkets – Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

The estimated figure for the total independent convenience sector was one complaint for every 17.6 stores.

Documents seen by RN revealed some councils failed to even log complaints received.

Others carried out repeated inspections, provided advice, and a minority threatened stores with fines, alcohol licence reviews and forced closures.

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Of 4,382 full complaint records provided, 70.4% resulted in a visit or unannounced inspection.

The potential reputational and financial damage from complaints comes despite many subsequent inspections showing the subject to be following all necessary laws.

Asked how many food retail complaints were unwarranted, one council environmental health officer (EHO) told RN: “It’s about half and half.”

A great number of complaints related to customers not wearing masks, an issue retailers are not legally required to enforce.

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“Despite the best efforts of supermarkets big and small, they are making up a larger share of complaints as they are one of the few places shared by those with very different views on social distancing,” commented the EHO.

Many face-mask complaints were against staff with valid medical exemptions. In visits where the complaints were viewed to be unsubstantiated, officials advised placing face-covering posters more prominently, giving exemption badges for medically exempt staff to wear, reapplying worn floor distancing signs and giving customers ignoring the law “verbal reminders”.

The EHO explained: “Face coverings are the most visible sign of an issue. If we spot it, we’ll then take a closer look at the business.”

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Morrisons

Morrisons had the highest complaint rate, estimated at one complaint for every 2.5 outlets UK-wide. Council records revealed EHOs issued one site with an improvement notice, ordering it to make changes or close.

Officers at another council accused the supermarket of delaying its attempts to contain an outbreak in store.

A Morrisons spokesperson told betterRetailing: “We don’t recognise these calculations. The feedback from councils has been overwhelmingly positive about our standards and response.”

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Asda

Asda had the second-worst rate, with an estimated complaint for every 3.3 sites UK-wide.

The supermarket claimed the figure, based on 51 complaints, was “an inaccurate and misleading picture”. A spokesperson said: “There is no evidence that any of these complaints led to action by the local authority.”

Bargain Booze, Today’s, Best-one, Costcutter, McColl’s, unaffiliated independents, Co-op and Londis all achieved complaint rates significantly better than the grocery retail average.

Nisa, One Stop, Mace, Premier and Lifestyle Express achieved complaints rates significantly worse than the grocery retail average.

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Booker

In wholesale, Booker received seven complaints, as many as every other cash and carry combined.

A Booker spokesperson responded: “We have clear signage explaining [the need to wear masks] and we have face coverings available at reception for any customer who has forgotten theirs.” Booker added it is “for the police, rather than individual retailers or wholesalers, to enforce compliance”.

One Stop

One Stop said it follows all government guidance and has installed screens, floor stickers, posters and cleaning products for customers, and has face coverings on sale.

Its spokesperson added: “Our recent customer survey showed that more than 90% of our customers believe One Stop is a safe place to shop.”

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Nisa

Nisa said it had “taken numerous steps” to support retailers including regular guidance and signage for use in stores.

Co-op

Co-op said it had implemented “a range of rigorous cleanliness and social distancing measures”. A spokesperson said while face masks had been a “flashpoint” for some, “the majority of shoppers have relied on an easy, quick and safe shop at their local convenience store more than ever – valuing the lengths shopworkers have gone to in order to keep communities fed”.

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