Tesco apologises after suggesting sanitary products were 'non-essential' in Wales

26 October 2020, 11:17 | Updated: 26 October 2020, 13:56

Tesco in St Mellons near Cardiff blocked off one of the toiletries aisles
Tesco in St Mellons near Cardiff blocked off one of the toiletries aisles. Picture: @nicholasmith6

By Megan White

Tesco has apologised after suggesting sanitary products were not available for sale in one branch due to the Welsh ban on non-essential items.

Customer Nichola Smith posted a picture on Twitter of barriers blocking off one of the pharmacy aisles in the supermarket in St Mellons near Cardiff on Monday morning.

She said she was left “raging” after the toiletries were seemingly off-limits, but alcohol was still on sale.

Read more: Angry shopper tears down barricades to children's clothing in Wales

Tesco's customer service initially told her the barriers were due to covid rules, before saying it was an error at that particular branch. They eventually established the aisle was blocked off due to a £20,000 raid on hygiene products.

South Wales police Tweeted today: "Officers are investigating a burglary at Tesco supermarket in St Mellons which happened between 2.30am and 4.30am this morning (26/10). An estimated £20,000 worth of beauty products were stolen, including make up, electric toothbrushes and razors."

On Friday afternoon, the Welsh Government issued guidance stating that certain sections or aisles of large supermarkets or department stores "must be cordoned off or emptied, and closed to the public".

These include areas selling electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, and products for the garden, as well as a dedicated section for homeware products.

The supermarket giant told one customer that they had been told not to sell the items
The supermarket giant told one customer that they had been told not to sell the items. Picture: Twitter

Her daughter complained on Twitter, writing: “Can you explain why I was told today that I can’t buy period pads as I’m sure they are essential to women ?!!! But I can buy alcohol it doesn’t make sense.”

But the supermarket initially replied: “We understand how frustrating these changes will be for our Welsh customers. However, we have been told by the Welsh Government not to sell these items for the duration of the firebreak lockdown.”

The move was quickly condemned by the Welsh Government, who said it was “wrong” for the essential products to be blocked off.

In a tweet, they wrote: “This is wrong - period products are essential. Supermarkets can still sell items that can be sold in pharmacies.

“Only selling essential items during firebreak is to discourage spending more time than necessary in shops. It should not stop you accessing items that you need.”

Tesco quickly deleted the initial response, apologised for the confusion and said they were “clearly an essential purchase" adding that the supermarket will be told to remove the barriers immediately.

They later claimed the aisle had been closed off because of a break-in leading to a police investigation.

The supermarket tweeted: “Good Morning Katie - thanks for getting in touch and please accept my apologies for the confusion caused by my colleagues' earlier reply. This is a response we're using when challenged on products that we have been asked to restrict by the Welsh government.

“However, clearly sanitary products are an essential purchase and I'm so sorry to see that one of our stores has them restricted at the moment.

“Can you please DM us to let me know when you were in store and which store this was, so I can look in to this further.”

Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething said during his weekly press conference that he was "saddened" by the incident, and reinforced that sanitary products do count as an essential item.

He said: "I was very saddened to see this particular exchange on social media this morning, from a supermarket telling a woman she could not buy period products.

The aisle was covered with no entry signs
The aisle was covered with no entry signs. Picture: @nicholasmith6

"This is simply wrong. It is an incorrect reading of both the regulations and the guidance. I am very sorry this woman was given this information.

"Supermarkets are open and trading, as are many other shops, and are able to sell the wide range of everyday items we all need.

"But there are some other items that won't be on sale for the next two weeks. These are items which other high street shops, which are closed, can't sell at the moment."

He added: "We will take action today so that retailers understand that our rules already allow people in acute need to buy the basics, which are essential to them over the next two weeks.

"We also ask people to understand the very real crisis that we are facing at the moment in Wales, and to please treat people working in our shops with the respect that they deserve.

"We are meeting retailers this afternoon to review the regulations and guidance to make sure that it is being applied fairly and consistently.

"If there are anomalies, we will look at whether the guidance needs to be revised or strengthened, to make it clear that supermarkets have some discretion to sell to people who are in genuine need."

In a statement, a Tesco Spokesperson said: “Sanitary products are essential items and are available to customers in all of our stores in Wales.

"Due to a break-in, this area was closed temporarily in one store for a Police investigation, but is now open again.

"The reply to this customer, which implied these products were non-essential, was sent by mistake and we’re very sorry for any confusion caused.”

Welsh Conservative health spokesperson Andrew RT Davies said the confusion was the result of a "barmy ban" by the Welsh Labour Government which should be stopped.

"No woman should be put through such an experience and sadly this chaos and confusion is a direct result of the Welsh Labour Government's barmy ban on non-essential retail," Mr Davies said.

"This ludicrous policy has caused real anger and it's not fair on staff working in our supermarkets and the general Welsh public who are now at their wits' end with Labour ministers.

"The Welsh Labour Government has rushed out a policy that was not even understood by the country's largest supermarket and that's the fault of the First Minister and his colleagues.

"This ban must be dropped today."

On Saturday, an angry shopper was seen tearing down the covers over children's clothes in a Welsh supermarket after the ban came into force.

The man has since been charged with criminal damage and breaking coronavirus rules.

Gwilym Owen said he was "taking a stand for what is right" when he ripped the plastic wrapping off winter clothes in Tesco, Bangor.

Supplies for the "essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household" - such as batteries, lightbulbs and rubber gloves - can be sold during the lockdown.

Shops will be expected to use their "best endeavours" to consider what should be available in cases where there may be doubt as to whether a product is essential, the guidance states.

Mr Drakeford said: "We are requiring many hundreds of small businesses to close on the high street right across Wales."We cannot do that and then allow supermarkets to sell goods that those people are unable to sell.

"And we are looking to minimise the amount of time that people spend out of their homes during this two-week period.

"This is not the time to be browsing around supermarkets looking for non-essential goods."