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Non-essential items? Sorry, we’re just not buying it

When news hit that supermarkets in Wales were instructed to corner off areas selling ‘non-essential items’, such as homeware or clothing, the internet was…confused. What are these mythical ‘non-essential’ items’ and who exactly are they ‘non-essential’ for?

It wasn’t just the general public who struggled to understand what made something ‘non- essential’; shop assistants were sacrificed on the frontlines to face answering the unanswerable and Tesco had to apologise to people who were refused period products – arguably an essential for anybody who has ever had a period. In one incident, a man walked into a supermarket in Newport wearing only his boxer shorts, socks, and trainers, saying, “clothes were non- essential” when he was questioned by staff.

In a more recent and upsetting event, a mother and child fleeing from domestic abuse were denied bedding and clothes as the Welsh Government decided that they could do without. And this is the issue: who gets to decide what is an essential item? What is a necessary item for me might be unnecessary for you. The people making these decisions do not represent a universal person and therefore they shouldn’t be able to make decisions for everybody.

Essentiality is subjective. To somebody who is vegan, meat and dairy are dispensable and to somebody who doesn’t drink, alcohol is a waste of space. I personally cannot stand tomatoes, but I don’t think that means they should fall under the banner of ‘non-essential’.
In response to the public outrage at the scheme, the Welsh government attempted to explain their reasoning. They argued that the aim was to support small retailers who had been forced to close; if they were unable to trade in these items, then supermarkets shouldn’t be allowed to either. The first minister, Mark Drakeford, defended the decision, saying it was “a simple matter of fair play” and that the aim was to “discourage spending more time than necessary in shops and to be fair to retailers who have to close.’’

The argument did make sense – if your local independent bookstore can’t sell books, then Sainsburys probably shouldn’t be able to either. The issue wasn’t in the reasoning, but in the lack of clear definition about what makes an item essential or not. Clarity is key when it comes to making decisions this big and it seems that the Welsh government either forgot or chose to ignore this.

They have since provided a clearer list, defining what they deem essential items, and have clarified that there are still circumstances under which these ‘non-essential’ items become essential and therefore will be allowed to be purchased. These additions are helpful but really should have been released with the initial advice.

This whole palaver could have been avoided if politicians had simply spent more time being clear and less time concocting vague rules with dubious scientific backing. It is just yet another example of a Covid-related rule which has been implemented before being sufficiently thought through (somewhat similar to bringing university students back to campus…*cough cough*).

Image: Maddi Bazzocco via Unsplash