Blind and partially sighted people across England who have struggled to buy food since the lockdown are now able to access priority online shopping slots following campaigning by sight loss charities.

Changes to supermarket layouts, social distancing and limitations on online delivery slots have made it nearly impossible for blind and partially sighted people to shop without support. As a result, just half of blind and partially sighted people who shopped independently before lockdown are still doing so, according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). Because of this, one in five (21 per cent) are also being forced to ration food.

Following months of campaigning by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Guide Dogs, Thomas Pocklington Trust and Visionary – including the submission of a petition with over 22,000 signatures – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have recognised the specific challenges faced by people with sight loss. As a result, Defra has secured online shopping slots aimed at people who cannot safely leave their home and have no social network to support them from a number of major supermarkets.

David Clarke, Director of Services at RNIB, said: “Blind and partially sighted people have been facing specific and unique challenges that have had an enormous impact on everyday independence. Our helpline has received thousands of calls from people worried about access to food and many are having to rely on the goodwill of strangers to get the essentials they needed. These new slots represent a first step in what, for many blind and partially sighted people, will be a long road to regaining their full independence, enabling them to buy what they want, when they want without support from others.”

The priority shopping slots are now available through referral via RNIB’s Helpline and are intended for blind and partial sighted people who are unable to access food and have no local family or friends who can help them shop.

Elizabeth Manuel (pictured), a former district judge from Portsmouth, was forced to ration a week’s worth of food over several weeks after she was unable to get a supermarket slot online. Ms Manuel, who is partially sighted after suffering a brain haemorrhage when she was 47, self-isolated for 12 weeks from the start of lockdown and is still forced to rely on her neighbour to shop for her. She said: “I’m normally a very independent person, but for weeks after lockdown started, I couldn’t get an online shopping slot despite trying every day. I wrote to the main supermarkets and also my MP to ask for help, but nothing I did resulted in any food or support. My anxiety levels were very high, particularly when I got home after being hospitalised with Covid-19 and still had no way to buy food for myself.

“I’ve been forced to rely on my neighbour, who has been helping me throughout. But I’ve also been rationing the food I have because I don’t want to keep asking them for things and put them at greater risk of catching the virus. The fact that I’ve been unable to get this most basic of necessities myself is shocking in 2020.

“It is a real relief for me, and others with sight loss, that the real difficulties faced by blind and partially sighted people have finally been recognised by the Government.”

Blanche Shackleton, Head of Public Affairs, Campaigns and Influencing at Guide Dogs, said: “People with sight loss faced a double whammy of being unable to observe social distancing in supermarkets, while also being excluded from priority online delivery slots. Many were telling us they were really worried about how they were going to buy food at all. This is why we worked alongside people with sight loss, our partner organisations and members of the public to achieve this vitally important result.”

Charles Colquhoun, Chief Executive of Thomas Pocklington Trust, said: “We have been working in partnership with organisations across the sight loss sector to lobby Government on this issue since the start of the pandemic.  It is good news these shopping slots have been ringfenced for blind and partially sighted people who have found it difficult to get food. It will support people who have had to rely on strangers and volunteers to be able to shop independently again.”

Fiona Sandford, CEO of Visionary, said: “Visionary are delighted with the outcome of this campaign. Since the start of this pandemic, local sight loss organisations have every day been speaking to people struggling to get access to food and shopping. They have put considerable efforts into helping people access food, often providing practical support to make this happen. Knowing that there is now guaranteed access to priority shopping slots for blind and partially sighted people will make a huge difference to people who want to return to living independent lives and offer additional assistance to the organisations who support them.”

As well as work with DEFRA, RNIB has been working closely with supermarkets across the country, providing guidance to help them support blind and partially sighted customers in the current environment. RNIB has also worked with wholesalers, Brakes, to set up an accessible ordering system of their goods in areas close to their delivery depots. The programme is currently trialling in Hertfordshire and Essex and is set to roll out across all Brakes’ delivery areas in England from 22 June.

For more information about the support available, including the new priority online shopping slots for people with sight loss visit rnib.org.uk. People who are eligible can access this new support via RNIB’s Helpline on 0303 123 9999, from 8am-8pm on weekdays and 9am-5pm on Saturdays.

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